Pacers/Heat Game 7 preview: Win or go home


The Miami Heat are at home, they have the swagger that comes with having hung a banner, they are battle tested, and they have the best player in the world on their team. He’s the trump card.

The Indiana Pacers are confident, they have the blueprint on how to win against the Heat, they are big and able to pound Miami inside, and they have a defense that can keep them in any game.

Miami is playing for its legacy. Indiana has a confidence that comes from having beaten Miami in Miami once this series — and if Roy Hibbert hadn’t been watching the final moments of Game 1 from the bench, they might have ended this series already.

Miami vs. Indiana Game 7 — winner goes on to the NBA Finals, loser goes fishing. One game, win or go home.

The keys to this big game remain what they have all series.

Indiana’s offensive rebounding is the key barometer for them — when Hibbert and David West are getting offensive rebounds and second-chance points the Pacers’ offense can score with the Heat. In their wins Indiana has grabbed the board on close to 40 percent of its missed shots, they need to do that again. Indiana will also try to use that size by getting the ball inside, getting their big men looks and ideally drawing fouls and getting a lot of free throws. Hibbert has averaged 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds a game this series to lead them. Paul George has been brilliant and he is the perimeter player that stirs the drink.

LeBron James has been fantastic this series as well — he’s averaged 28.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game (and usually one flop). He’d average more assists but his help on offense has been inconsistent at best — Dwyane Wade has looked grounded because of the bone bruise on his knee, while Chris Bosh has been overmatched much of the series against the larger Pacers front line. Someone — Wade, Bosh, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem — has to step up, knock down shots and be a second scorer with LeBron for Miami to win. Indiana has chased Miami off the three-point line all series, the Heat need those threes that fueled their powerful offense all season. And they have to rebound — like a pack, as they did all season. Miami cannot let Indiana dominate the glass.

The Heat’s advantages are they are at home, where those role players they need tend to be more comfortable and play better. They also get Chris Andersen back following a one-game suspension for foolishly shoving and challenging Tyler Hansbrough — Miami missed the Birdman in Game 6.

Defense will be the key — Miami has averaged 106.9 points per 100 possessions this series, which is 10 points better than the Pacers allowed during the regular season; Indiana is right with them averaging 106.5 points per 100, which is 5 points better than they scored during the season and 6 better than the Heat allowed. The Heat try to swarm you with athleticism (although they stop trapping on pick-and-rolls a couple games ago) and the Pacers use their length on the perimeter and size in the paint to challenge everything.

One team’s defense will likely step up tonight and slow the other team down — do that and they are playing the Spurs Thursday night.

Also, Game 7s have ways of making heroes out of unexpected players. Is this the game Norris Cole just goes off for Miami, driving and knocking down threes? Does Lance Stephenson seem immune to the pressure and have a huge game for the Pacers with an athleticism the Heat cannot slow?

Miami is and should be the favorites at home, but the Pacers enter with a genuine belief they can win this thing.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is right — these are the kind of games we talk about 20 years from now. The kind of games that define legacies.

Because it’s simple and clear — one game for everything. Winner takes it all.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.

LeBron James on NBA play-in tournament: “No, no, no. That’s wack.”

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It’s a long way off, but there has been some discussion in the league office — and some momentum built up in some corners — for a play-in tournament for the NBA playoffs. While multiple variations of how this would work are in play, it involves some combination of teams seeded seven to 10 in a few single-elimination (or home-and-home) games to see who gets into the 16-team playoffs. The goal is to keep more teams — and more fan bases — engaged in the playoff chase longer.

LeBron James is not a fan. Via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“No, no, no,” James said Wednesday. “That’s wack. That’s wack. Why? You got to earn your spot to be in the postseason. No consolation for finishing last. That’s corny. That’s corny. That’s wack. To play for what? What are they playing for?”

So, how do you really feel?

“[Make the playoffs by winning the tournament], even if my record is better than yours? Nah, that’s wack,” James said.

As fans, we love drama and unpredictability — it’s what we love about March Madness, the upsets that ruin our bracket — and a play-in tournament would bring some to the often predictable NBA table.

However, LeBron has a point. Using the Western Conference and the current standings as an example, how excited are fans and the front offices of the Jazz and Nuggets going to be about an extra game or two for the right to get smacked down by Houston in the first round? Or for the Timberwolves to maybe be out after a game where they lose to the Clippers in a play-in, rather than getting to take on Golden State? Will this really sell well?

The only way this gets backing of most players and the union is if it could help shorten the season — if television and other revenue from these games allowed the 82 game season to drop to 72 (or whatever) and keep the money the same, then players would listen. However, that much money seems unlikely.

Maybe a mid-season NBA Tournament held in one city could generate the needed revenue to shorten the season. Maybe. But that seems more likely than a play-in.

Kyle Korver to miss Wednesday vs. Toronto after death of his brother

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I can’t imagine what this is like.

Cavaliers’ sharpshooter Kyle Korver will not be with the Cavaliers for an interesting showdown with Toronto on Wednesday night due to the death of his younger brother, Kirk. Korver has been given a leave of absence from the team.

Kirk Korver, 27, played four years of college ball at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

There are four Korver brothers, all of whom played college basketball or at a higher level. Kirk was the youngest of them, he reportedly fell seriously ill about a week ago.

Our thoughts are with the entire Korver family.

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