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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Reports: Kings consider firing Karl. DeMarcus Cousins: “We’ve got a bigger issue” than players

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The Sacramento Kings have lost six of seven. A couple of weeks back they climbed to the eight seed in the West, but since then have gone into a tailspin. In those games, Sacramento is getting beat by 6.1 points per 100 possessions, mostly because their defense is giving up 110.4 points per 100 possessions (fifth worst in the NBA in that time).

In Sacramento, most of the blame for the losing streak seems to have fallen upon the players. Or, at least, the players feel that way. DeMarcus Cousins apparently has had enough of it. After Friday’s ugly 128-119 loss to Brooklyn on the road, Cousins said the Kings have bigger problems than the players, as reported by James Ham of CSNBayArea.com.

“I’m not going to keep blaming the guys in the locker room,” Cousins said following the game. “Energy and effort is a huge part of the game, but we’re not going to keep blaming it on that. We’ve got a bigger issue and we need to figure it out as a team….

“I’d rather keep it in-house, but we’ve got bigger issues than just energy and effort,” Cousins added. “That can’t be the excuse every night.”

Not sure that’s a very good job of keeping it in house.

The logical conclusion to jump to is Cousins is referring to coach George Karl, who has never been on the same page with Cousins. Karl was hired at the All-Star break last season, replacing Mike Malone (who Cousins loved) and has pushed the pace with a roster not built for that style of play (at 102.1 possessions per game the Kings play at the fastest pace in the NBA). With the team struggling and falling out of playoff contention (3.5 games back of eight seed Utah) Karl’s job is in immediate jeopardy — he may not make it to the All-Star break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac were so livid about a blowout defeat to the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night – the franchise’s sixth loss in seven games – they were strongly weighing the firing of coach George Karl, league sources told The Vertical…

As hours passed following the 128-119 loss to the Nets, there were indications that Karl could be spared long enough to coach the Kings on Sunday in Boston. Nevertheless, Karl has rapidly lost support in management and some parts of the locker room, league sources told The Vertical.

That part would include Cousins. Apparently.

The Kings have a brutal Boston then Cleveland back-to-back Sunday and Monday on the road, and then face the Sixers on Wednesday before the All-Star break starts. Any coach hired before that back-to-back walks into a couple of losses.

A big part of Cousins’ frustration with the Kings has been the franchise’s instability — they seem to pick a new style of play or make some other radical change every year. There is no continuity. Karl is Cousins’ fifth head coach in Sacramento in six seasons. Most recently, gone was Mike Malone’s slower play (which had worked fairly well when Cousins was healthy) and a couple of months later in came Karl’s uptempo system. Now he may be gone. There is no effort to build slowly and to a system that fits the roster. That issue goes straight to owner Vivek Ranadive.

This would be another one of those changes, but Cousins would apparently welcome it this time. Money does play a factor in this — Karl was signed to a deal with $11.5 million in guaranteed money, fire him and they have to cut a huge check. (Minority owners in Sacramento are already frustrated with Ranadive.)

There is no word on who might be in the wings to replace Karl, although it likely would be an interim coach through the end of the season.

No, this does not mean the Kings are going to trade Cousins. At least not immediately, at the deadline, and not likely next summer either. He’s the Kings’ best player, and they would not get equal value back for him. Ranadive is Cousins’ biggest supporter in the organization. Finally, remember the Kings move into a new building in downtown Sacramento next season — you don’t trade your most popular player and face of the team’s marketing program while trying to sell luxury boxes/sponsorships/season tickets in a new building.

Hassan Whiteside gets triple-double as Heat hold off Hornets

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) reacts to his team scoring a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Dallas. The Heat won 93-90. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Associated Press
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside did his part to prevent the Charlotte Hornets from scoring inside.

Mix in a couple of key steals in the final seconds, and the Heat had a nice win on the road.

Whiteside had 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocked shots, and Miami beat Charlotte 98-95 on Friday night.

Dwyane Wade scored 22 points and Chris Bosh added 20 points for the Heat, who have won six of seven. Goran Dragic had 12 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.

Whiteside, a native of nearby Gastonia, North Carolina, posted his third triple-double of the season and No. 4 for his career.

“I was at the YMCA around the corner two years ago; now I’m here,” Whiteside said. “When a ball is around my elbow area, I’m going to try and catch it.

“The last three minutes, they were so worried about pump-faking, pump-faking. I told the guys to just stay with the 3-point shooters.”

Marvin Williams scored 27 points for the Hornets, and Nicolas Batum added 21. Kemba Walker had 20 points.

“Whiteside just dominated every aspect of that game,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “Right now, he’s the premiere rim protector in the league. It changed the game when he came in; they were a totally different team when he was out there.”

The Heat were coming off a close 93-90 win at Dallas on Wednesday. The last time Miami played at Time Warner Cable Arena on Dec. 9, Charlotte won 99-81.

“It’s hard not to notice what they’ve done on this home court,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It seems that every top team in the East that comes in here walks out of here with a double-digit loss.

“It was something that we wanted to collectively do – get a win to put us at .500 on the road, and in a building that we haven’t played well.”

The Hornets led 93-90 with 1:10 remaining, but Wade made a layup and Bosh added a three-point play to make it 95-93 with 23.5 seconds left.

Charlotte had a chance to tie it, but Justise Winslow‘s steal set up a free throw by Luol Deng for a 96-93 advantage with 13.2 seconds left.

Wade then stole the ball from Walker and passed to Deng for a fast-break dunk with 4.3 seconds remaining and the Heat’s biggest lead of the game.

Before Miami’s flurry at the very end, neither team was able to grab much of an advantage. There were 26 lead changes and 12 ties, including 47-47 at halftime.

“We know we have to get stops,” Wade said. “We know we have enough offensive firepower down the stretch to get great looks. Tonight, Hassan was incredible down the stretch with protecting the basket.”

TIP-INS

Heat: Winslow had eight points and 10 rebounds. … Miami finished with 12 blocked shots. … The Heat outscored the Hornets 64-32 in the paint, and also enjoyed an 18-6 edge in second-chance points thanks to eight offensive rebounds.

Hornets: Shot 44.4 percent from the field (36 of 81), and made 10 of 26 3-pointers. … Also shot 13 of 15 from the free-throw line. … Charlotte’s reserves scored just 12 points, while Miami got 29 points from its backups.

 

HONORING `ZO’

Former Hornets star and 15-year NBA veteran Alonzo Mourning, now the vice president of player programs and development for the Heat, was honored by the home team during halftime of Friday’s game.

While he spent only three seasons in Charlotte (1992-1995), Mourning still holds franchise records for career blocks (684) and blocks per game (3.2), and is second in career scoring (21.3 points) and rebounds (10.1 per game).

 

Paul Millsap, Al Horford pace Hawks past Pacers 102-96

Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford dunks against the Indiana Pacers during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday Feb. 5, 2016, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 102-96. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) — Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer wasn’t terribly concerned that his team gave up 19 offensive rebounds.

Not when Atlanta held on for a third straight win.

“Obviously we’d like to be better, but I think just because you give up a rebound doesn’t mean automatically they’re going to score two points,” he said. “Overall, our defense is a lot of times what’s giving us a chance.”

Paul Millsap scored 24 points, Al Horford added 21 points and the Hawks beat the Indiana Pacers 102-96 on Friday night.

Paul George finished with 31 points for Indiana, which has lost 17 of its last 19 regular-season matchups in Atlanta. Lavoy Allen added 13 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.

The Pacers missed their first six shots of the fourth quarter before C.J. Miles‘ runner cut the lead to 78-74 with 8 minutes remaining.

George’s 3 with 4:49 left gave Indiana its last lead at 86-84. He hit another 3 with 1:02 left, falling back and heaving the ball over his right shoulder for a 35-footer that brought the Pacers within two.

But Jeff Teague‘s jumper and Kent Bazemore‘s two free throws pushed the lead to six with 22 seconds left. Teague had 16 points. Bazemore had 15 points and tied for a game-high eight assists.

Neither team led by more than six until the closing seconds. The lead changed hands 12 times.

It was a particularly frustrating night for Indiana, which out-rebounded the Hawks 53-32 and outscored them on second-chance points.

“Our bigs did a great job of rebounding,” George said. “It’s hard to make plays when they’re getting whacked all day at the rebounding, but it’s another game that we should have had – one that we didn’t do so late in the game and put it away.”

Horford had two consecutive dunks to push Atlanta back in front 73-72 in the last minute of the third. Dennis Schroder hit a 3 to make it a four-point lead early in the fourth.

“I think guys were pretty excited about the dunk(s),” Horford said. “I felt like that defensively fueled us going into the fourth.”

Millsap, at 6-foot-8, and the 6-10 Horford caused problems for Indiana’s big men all night on the perimeter with their passing skills and athleticism. They helped the Hawks outscore Indiana by four points in the paint.

“We did some good things but we didn’t handle their pressure well enough offensively,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They got some very, very difficult coverages with Horford and Millsap out there spacing the floor we didn’t handle well enough either.”

The Hawks stayed in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 30-22 record. Indiana, at 26-24, fell to eighth place.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Indiana has dropped six of its last eight on the road. … George has scored at least 30 points in 15 of his 50 games. … G Monta Ellis, who averaged 20.5 points in the previous four games, scored 11.

Hawks: Atlanta has won nine of its last 11 at home. … The Hawks improved to 25-3 when scoring at least 100 points. … Led by Schroder’s nine points, the bench scored 20 – 60 less than the reserves combined for in Wednesday’s win at Philadelphia, the team’s highest total since 1987-88.

 

Bulls’ Jimmy Butler leaves game with sprained knee (VIDEO)

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This is not good.

With just more than a minute to go in the second quarter in Denver, Jimmy Butler drove the basket, absorbed some contact, and hit the ground hard. Butler — who seems to bounce back up from everything — stayed down. He hobbled out to take his free throws (the only way he could potentially return to the game) but then left it in a wheelchair. He did not return to the game.

The Bulls announced he has a left knee sprain. This is the same knee where he has been battling tendonitis.

Butler will have an MRI to assess the damage. As of now, there is no timetable for his return, but it seems he will miss at least a few games.

The up-and-down Bulls can’t afford to lose him for an extended stretch.