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.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.

Kobe Bryant says he’s “only a phone call away” if organization needs his advice

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For the first time since he walked off the court in his final game, Kobe Bryant was back at Staples Center Friday night.

The reason was Shaquille O’Neal was getting a statue out in front of Staples Center (a building that may not have gotten built without the two of them). The two famed feuders sat next to each other and joked around through the ceremony. Time heals all wounds.

With the new management of the Lakers — specifically Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM — there has been speculation Kobe could take on a role. He’s not looking for something formal, according to reports, but he didn’t say no, either, when asked.

I picture Kobe as a guy who someday buys a team, not a guy who wants to haggle with agents over the details of a contract. He’s not going to take on a day-to-day role, he likes the retired life and what he is building with the Kobe brand.

That said, the Lakers front office can use all the smart voices it can get as they try speed up a rebuild. They should give him a call every once in a while.

Clippers win likely playoff preview 108-95 over Jazz

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jamal Crawford scored 28 points off the bench, and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Utah Jazz 108-95 on Saturday to clinch a playoff berth for the sixth straight year.

The Clippers trail the Jazz by a half-game in their race for the No. 4 playoff seed in the West. The teams are likely to face in the first round of the postseason.

Blake Griffin added 15 points and DeAndre Jordan had 15 rebounds for the Clippers.

Rudy Gobert had 26 points and 14 rebounds for Utah, and reserve Joe Johnson added 17 points. The Jazz have dropped four of five.

Utah rallied in the third, putting together a 20-6 spurt to trim Los Angeles’ lead to 72-70 heading into the final period. Gobert had nine points and Johnson scored seven during the run that included 10 straight points for the Jazz over one stretch.

Chris Paul and Crawford both got technicals while the Clippers struggled to score and defend.

But Los Angeles turned things around in the fourth, scoring the first eight points for an 80-70 lead. Crawford had 17 points in the quarter, scoring six in a row to push the Clippers’ lead to 103-84. He was 9 of 9 at the free-throw line for the game.

The Clippers grabbed control early on, shooting 52 percent in the first quarter while building a 15-point lead.

The Jazz got within seven to start the second before the Clippers restored their 15-point margin and eventually led 49-41 at halftime.

Utah’s top two scorers, Gordon Hayward and George Hill, struggled. Hayward, who averages 22 points, had 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Hill, who averages 17.1, had nine points while shooting 4 of 11.

TIP-INS

Jazz: Gobert was coming off a career-high 35-point, 15-rebound performance against the Knicks on Tuesday. … G Sheldon Mack missed his 11th straight game with a left ankle sprain. … F/C Derrick Favors remains out with a left knee bone contusion.

Clippers: Their six-year playoff run is the longest in franchise history. … They have won 18 of 20 against the Jazz dating to Feb. 1, 2012. … They won the season series 3-1.

 

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