Miami Heat's James celebrates with the Eastern Conference championship trophy after they defeated the Indiana Pacers during Game 7 of their NBA Eastern Conference final basketball playoff in Miami

Heat rise to the occasion in NBA’s biggest game of the year


You will read plenty of stats that explain why the Heat beat the Pacers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Miami outrebounded Indiana for the first time this series. The Pacers turned the ball over more than any other game this series. Indiana hadn’t shot so poorly on both 2-pointers and 3-pointers in any game this series.

But my favorite number from this game doesn’t explain why the Heat beat the Pacers. It shows why the Heat beat the Pacers.

Miami, at one point tonight, had made 24-of-25 free throws.

That’s about five more made free throws than the players who attempted them, based on regular-season percentages, would be expected to make. The Heat certainly didn’t need the five extra points during their 99-76 win, but the level of focus necessary to make 24-of-25 free throws is rather astounding.

Despite 40 games with enough attempts to qualify, the Heat didn’t make 24-of-25 free throws at any point of a single game all season. And now they were doing it in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals? Incredible.

The Heat played at a level they hadn’t played all playoffs, and that’s why they won. Their free-throw percentage didn’t dip until they were already up 20 late, and it was OK to let their focus slip.

I don’t mean to disparage the Pacers, and I don’t believe the Heat coasted before tonight. They were playing a seventh game because they were approximately even through six games.

But there’s a level a Game 7 can extract from the players participating that a Game 6 cannot. It’s only human that players summon more from within themselves when moment calls for it. With the exception of only those who possess the rare mental acuity that gives them the ability to fool their own minds, maximum effort in Game 7 is higher than than maximum effort in Game 6.

In these biggest moments, the Heat have players who’ve proven their maximum level is supremely high.

LeBron James scored 48 points, including Cleveland’s final 25, in a double-overtime win over the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. Dwyane Wade averaged 34.7 points in the 2006 NBA Finals. Ray Allen has scored more points in a single playoff game (51) than any active player, and he set an NBA Finals record by making eight straight 3-pointers.

And here were those those three were carrying Miami in Game 7.

LeBron James (32 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals) hit numbers nobody has in a Game 7 in 25 years. Dwyane Wade (21 points) produced his highest-scoring game of since Game 2 of the first round. Ray Allen (10 points, 3-of-5 3-point shooting) shook off a 7-of-24 start to the series from beyond the arc.

The Heat never scored more than seven straight points in Game 7. They didn’t need a longer sustained run, because when Indiana fought back, Miami wasn’t fazed. The Heat have players who just know how to lock into these games.

There have been six Game 7s in the last two years. Miami has played in two and holds the two wins by the largest margins.

The Heat can win under many circumstances. But games like this are right their wheelhouse.

76ers tie NBA-record losing streak, dropping heartbreaker to Celtics

Isaiah Thomas, T.J. McConnell
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After a rare period of on-court competence, the 76ers led the Celtics by five with two minutes left tonight.

Then, Philadelphia snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The 76ers yielded a 9-0 run to close an 84-80 setback.

They’re now 0-16. Combined with their 0-10 finish to last season, that’s a 26-game losing streak – tied for longest in NBA history. Last year’s 76ers already shared the record.

Philadelphia is also in danger of the worst start to a season. The 2009-10 New Jersey Nets began 0-18, and last year’s 76ers won only one game sooner.

The 76ers will try to avoid the all-time longest streak at the Rockets on Friday. If that goes unsuccessfully, they’ll try to avoid matching the worst season start at the Grizzlies on Sunday. And if both fail, they could set the worst-start record against the Lakers on Tuesday.

76ers-Lakers – it’s shaping up to be a big one.

Timberwolves read mean tweets about themselves (video)

Flip Saunders, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones
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The Timberwolves didn’t select the meanest tweets about these players, but credit Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine for being good sports.

LeBron James: I’m healthier than a year ago


LeBron James received an injection in his back before the season.

It’s working.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

LeBron James now says he feels better than he did even a year ago.

“I feel better in the mornings; I feel better throughout the games; I feel better throughout the day,” James said before a Cavs shootaround Wednesday in preparation for their game against the Toronto Raptors. “It was a rough start to the season for me last year and for our team. Obviously the way we’ve been playing, a lot is predicated on my health and being able to lead these guys out on the floor and not from the sidelines.”

LeBron certainly looks healthier than he did at this point last year. He’s moving much better and giving more effort.

But comparing November to November means very little for the Cavaliers, who hope to play deep into June.

The key question: Did LeBron properly time his injection? There’s a limit on the number he can have in a year, and it takes time to recover after one. Cleveland doesn’t want LeBron to peak to early.

It’s good for the Cavs that LeBron feels better now, but his health in the playoffs remains the priority.

Report: Suns signing Bryce Cotton

Bryce Cotton
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Eric Bledsoe missed the Suns’ loss to the Spurs on Monday with a knee injury.

So, Phoenix is bringing in a reinforcement – Bryce Cotton.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The Jazz waived Cotton before the season despite Dante Exum‘s injury leaving them with just two other healthy point guards. That says something about Cotton – but also Utah’s depth.

Cotton – who went undrafted out of Providence last year – is quick, varies his speed well and can leap. There’s reason to believe in his potential at age 23. But his 6-foot-1 frame limits him defensively, and he’s not much of a distributor.

Phoenix will rely on Brandon Knight and Ronnie Price at point guard if Bledsoe is unavailable. The Suns can also use fewer two-point guard lineups – giving more minutes at shooting guard to Devin Booker, Archie Goodwin and Sunny Weems.

Cotton provides insurance while Bledsoe is banged-up with what seems to be a minor injury. But he might have to show something to keep drawing an NBA paycheck once Bledsoe gets healthy.