Preview: Heat believe effort and a focused LeBron are keys to Game 4 of the Finals

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SAN ANTONIO — The Miami Heat have made a habit of bouncing back after a poor performance this season, and they hope that Thursday night’s Game 4 will be no different.

Following a 36-point loss in which the Spurs shot historically well from three-point distance, and managed to hold LeBron James without a free throw on the way to just 15 points on 7-of-21 shooting, the Heat were focused on making sure that they bring the required effort to what James characterized as a must-win game for them in the series.

“It’s just something we’ve grown into over the years, being able to bounce back in adverse situations,” James said on Wednesday. “And no matter the circumstances, this is going to be probably one of the toughest, because we’re going against a team with championship DNA and a championship pedigree on their floor in a must‑win.”

Despite the struggles James had on the offensive end of the floor, Game 3 turned on the lack of effort from the Miami defense, particularly in the second half. The Spurs made nine of their 16 three-pointers over the final two periods, and those shots, especially at home, can swing momentum fast.

Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra knows that his team needs to do a better job in limiting those opportunities — and mainly, closing out on the shooters — to avoid seeing a similar result.

“We have to do it better,” Spoelstra said. “We have a system that we believe in, that guys have built habits in. They need each other to be able to do it. Is it easy at this level? No. It never is. And it’s not easy for them to guard us, either. You have to be able to do multiple things against a very good team, and you have to have multiple efforts with concentration and discipline to be able to win in the Finals at this level.”

There was a possibility the Spurs may have been without Tony Parker on Thursday, who was officially listed as day-to-day after suffering a Grade 1 hamstring strain that forced him out of action in the third quarter of Game 3. Parker did not practice on Wednesday, and while he wouldn’t speculate on his availability for Game 4, he hinted that with this being the Finals, he would be likely to give it a shot.

Parker’s clues became fact on Thursday, when he confirmed to reporters that he is “ready to go” and will play in Game 4. But the outcome is likely to hinge on what version of LeBron shows up.

James was dismal in Game 3, and guaranteed he’d be better the next time he got the chance. What that should translate to is more drives to the basket to make the Spurs defend him on the move, which will put pressure on the officials to blow the whistle if he’s receiving contact while trying to score inside.

“I have to try to put more pressure on the defense,” James said. “Not saying the whistle is going to be blown, but putting pressure on their defensive interior and for myself to kick it out for my guys, I have to do that. That’s what I was brought here to do. And it can’t be anything less than that.”

The reality is that anything less than maximum aggression from LeBron will see the Spurs move one game closer to an NBA title.

Check out Lakers’ stretch of hitting 15 straight shots to end third quarter (VIDEO)

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The Lakers lost to the Wizards because they are young, inconsistent, and defend like traffic cones at times.

But that young Lakers core also has its moments.

Los Angeles strung together 15 straight made buckets to end the third quarter Tuesday night. Some of it was flukey, like Corey Brewer driving and finishing contested layups like he’s Kyrie Irving, but there were things Lakers fans should want to see such as D'Angelo Russell draining threes, Jordan Clarkson working hard off the ball and his teammates finding him, and Julius Randle just attacking.

After this run the Lakers led by 13 going into the fourth, but lost the game.

It’s official: Joakim Noah cleared to play, 20-game suspension starts tonight

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What this ultimately means is next season the Knicks should have Joakim Noah available just before Thanksgiving.

Noah has been suspended 20 games for testing positive for a banned substance, but because he was out due to knee surgery the suspension did not start until he was “physically able to play.” Noah said on Tuesday that he had been cleared, but that was just by the team doctors. He also had to be cleared by the NBA’s doctors (because if teams could cheat they would).

That happened Wednesday, according to Ian Begley of ESPN.

Noah’s first season in New York after signing a four-year, $72 million deal has been a disappointment. To put it kindly. He’s not been completely healthy, and any observer of him the past few years had to wonder if he would ever be fully healthy again. He had lost a step from the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year before the Knicks signed him. The Knicks don’t need him to necessarily be that dominant a force again (although it would be nice), but they need to get more out of him and see if he is a fit next to Kristaps Porzingis for now as the Knicks try to build a roster for next season that can play a little defense. And the triangle.

Report: Pacers bring back Lance Stephenson in time for playoffs; deal for three-years, $12 million

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The Indiana Pacers need healthy bodies for their playoff run, and they had three rotation guys injured between Al Jefferson, Glenn Robinson III, and Rodney Stuckey. Wednesday, the Pacers waived Stuckey to create an open roster spot to bring in some help (they were not going to pick up his option for next season anyway).

Who are they bringing in? The prodigal son Lance Stephenson returns, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

The surprising part of the deal was the security Stephenson got, as first reported by Adam Zagoria at his blog — three years, $12 million, with a player option for the final year. (This has since been confirmed by other sources.) Other teams were looking at giving Stephenson a 10-day contract, the length of the Pacers’ offer is a surprise.

Stephenson played in six games for Minnesota recently, averaging 3.5 points per game off the bench, but an ankle sprain kept the Timberwolves from really having to decide whether to keep him for the season. Stephenson knows how to create shots for himself and can be a good defender when focused, something we saw with the Pelicans at the start of this season — he became a key part of their rotation averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 assists per game until he tore his groin.

It’s a little strange to see him back in Pacers colors. It will be particularly strange if the Pacers stay in the seven seed and the Cavaliers remain the two-seed setting up a first-round playoff series. Because I don’t think any of us need to see this again.

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Tuesday’s win gives Wizards first division crown since 1979

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Divisions are almost forgotten in the NBA. They exist still as quaint reminders of days gone by, but they don’t matter other than as a potential tie breaker with a non-division-winning team. Winning your division doesn’t even guarantee a team a playoff spot anymore.

Yet, the last time Washington had won a division title they were in the Atlantic division and when you turned on the radio you were likely to hear that new hit Heart Of Glass by Blondie. It was 1979.

That was until Tuesday when John Wall led a 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter against the Lakers to get the Wizards the win and the SouthEast division title.

According to CBSSports.com, that 38-year division title drought was longer than any team in any major U.S. professional sports — NHL, NFL, and MLB.

Congrats to the Wizards. They also have locked up home court in the first round, and they are currently the No. 3 seed in the playoffs (who they face in the first round is up in the air still as only three games separate seeds five through nine).

With Scott Brooks at the helm this feels like a far more dangerous — and healthy — team heading into the postseason. Wizards fans have waited a lot time for a team like this.