Game 7 between the Heat and the Spurs: Seven things to watch

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MIAMI — The Heat and the Spurs have engaged in an epic Finals battle which will crown one of them as champions by the time Thursday night is through.

In a series where neither team has been able to string together two consecutive victories, it’s even more impossible than usual to predict how one game that will decide the title will ultimately shake out. But we can look for some signs, so here, in no particular order, are seven of them to watch.

1. Aggressive LeBron: When LeBron James is bringing up the ball, and attacking the paint either on straight dribble drives or from the post, the Heat are extremely difficult to stop. The fourth quarter of Game 6, as well as stretches of Game 4 are recent reminders of just how dominant the game’s best player can be when he exerts himself.

The trouble for the Heat is, from a pure energy standpoint, he can’t do it for 48 minutes. Dwyane Wade explained as much before practicing on Wednesday.

“I mean, [LeBron] is in unbelievable shape,” Wade said. “Unbelievable. “But he can’t do it four quarters that way. That’s why he has a team. A lot of people always say, why he can’t play like that every day? It takes so much out of you, so much energy to be able to do that. If he does, then he’s not playing any defense on the other end. He’s not making incredible blocks, [grabbing] incredible rebounds. It takes a lot of energy to be able to do that every time.”

2. Dwyane Wade’s effectiveness: The lineup data in this series says that when LeBron and Wade are on the floor together, it’s not a good look for the Heat. With James and without Wade, however, it’s a completely different story. How effective Wade can be, and whether or not Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has the guts to go away from him for extended stretches if he’s not may have a lot to do with how things play out for Miami. Don’t expect Spoelstra to change too much, however, no matter Wade’s performance.

“I don’t really give a whole lot to those numbers,” Spoelstra said. “We’re going as far as they take us, along with the other guys. You can’t win this series or the last game with a statistic. You have to compete and win those battles on the court.”

3. The Heat’s “other guys”: Speaking of the others, we know Miami is going to need someone outside of the Big Three to step up and contribute. History says LeBron wins when that happens, and remember, it was Ray Allen who made the season-saving shot in Game 6. Guys like Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller will be huge to the Heat’s chances; look at last year’s Finals closeout game, where Miller was 7-of-8 from three-point distance. In a one-game-for-the-title situation, a single, unexpected, outlier performance can be the difference.

4. Health concerns, specifically with Tony Parker: We know how banged up Wade has been, and he missed the start of the second half of Game 6 because he needed to remain in the locker room getting treatment on that ailing knee. But the health of Parker might be an even bigger issue for the Spurs.

Parker was clearly struggling in Game 6 — he was 6-of-23 from the field for the game, but he did make two ridiculously huge plays with about a minute to play that had his team on the brink of the title. The Spurs can’t afford to be without Parker’s services for the majority of Game 7, especially if their role players are nonexistent.

5. A role player for the Spurs needs to materialize: Over the course of the series, we’ve seen gigantic performances from San Antonio’s system players who produced when called upon. Danny Green was in the MVP conversation at one point, after setting the record for three-pointers made in the Finals through the first five games.

The Heat shut Green down in Game 6, and Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal were similarly unable to impact the game in any meaningful way. Tim Duncan was magnificent, but was only able to dominate for a half. Just like the Heat, San Antonio will need a total team effort, or at the very least, a standout performance to help its stars secure a title.

6. The level of play: The last time we saw a Game 7 to decide the NBA title back in 2010, the Lakers and Celtics engaged in more of a wrestling match than a basketball game for the majority of the night. Both teams competed incredibly hard, and were intent on making every possession a physical battle. That made the shooting percentages plummet (the winning team shot just 32.6 percent), and aside from the insane level of competitiveness, the game was anything but aesthetically pleasing.

We’ve been fortunate enough to see some of the highest levels of play in Finals history in this series, in terms of offensive execution and defensive cohesiveness between these two teams. If Game 7 comes down to a slugfest, the Spurs would have the advantage.

7. The pressure of Game 7: The Heat won the title just last season, and the Spurs core of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili have won multiple championships over the years. The veteran experience should serve both teams well in a deciding game, but should there be any nervousness or tentative play, it could be a factor in one team seeing the opportunity to pounce.

But James and Duncan are both well aware of what’s at stake.

“I understand the moment for me,” James said. “I’ve been pretty relaxed, though. I’ve been pretty relaxed throughout the playoffs. I’m going to be antsy, I’m going to be excited. I’m going to have some butterflies. I’ll be nervous. Everything. That’s how I should be. The moment is going to be grand, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

“Our core of guys have been through a lot together,” Duncan said. “We have some young talent here, but they’re going to feed off of what we do. And Tony, Manu and I have been in this position before. We’re excited about the opportunity.

“We just want to see what happens and be able to leave everything out there. We feel that obviously we like our chances, and to be in this situation, a Game 7, we’re just going to leave it all out there and see what happens.”

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.

Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. throws down 360 dunk against Wizards (video)

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The Wizards are in a rough place.

They’ve lost three of four, including a 23-point setback to the Mavericks last night, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out here practicing for a dunk contest on them.

Report: Damian Lillard meets with Trail Blazers owner, but doesn’t request trade as Paul Allen feared

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
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Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen was reportedly investigating whether his team’s problem was roster or coaching. In other words, it sounded as if he were determining whether he should fire general manager Neil Olshey or coach Terry Stotts amid a disappointing season. Portland has the NBA’s fifth-largest payroll and is on track to pay the luxury tax, but the team is just 25-22 and seventh in the Western Conference.

In these turbulent times, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who has strongly supported Stotts publicly – wanted to address Allen directly.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard met with team owner Paul Allen to gather an understanding of the organization’s direction, league sources told ESPN.

Lillard, who turns 28 on July 15, requested the meeting in part to reaffirm his commitment to the only professional franchise he has ever suited up for, but also to gain assurances that the organization was just as devoted to expeditiously crafting a title-contending team, sources said.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Allen feared Lillard would request a trade, sources said, but a trade request was not made.

The meeting, which sources described as a productive, open forum to share opinions and express concerns, could also lead to more sit-downs in the future.

Lillard issued a heartfelt vote of confidence for head coach Terry Stotts, sources said.

They also discussed players to target.

In addition, Lillard sought an explanation from Allen as to why Will Barton was traded to Denver in February of 2015, sources said. Lillard made it known he didn’t agree with the move.

The Trail Blazers traded Barton, because he wasn’t ready to lock down a rotation spot. They got Arron Afflalo, who was more ready to help a team still trying to win with LaMarcus Aldridge. The move was completely logical at the time, and it’s the type of gripe brought up now because Barton has developed with the Nuggets, and Portland is frustrated and in a funk.

Lillard surely suggested win-now moves leading up to the trade deadline, because that’s what players prioritize. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allen would rather shed a few million in salary to avoid the luxury tax in an underwhelming season.

How would Lillard feel about that? Did this meeting open a productive line of communication? Or would he just feel ignored?

Lillard has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to the Trail Blazers. A trade request would have been a huge reversal from his public statements. But did Allen have any reason to suspect Lillard would ask out other than the meeting request and Portland’s middling record?

That Lillard would seek this meeting shows his growth as a player. He’s taking an active role in his team’s fortunes, spreading his reach beyond the court – or at least trying to.

The big question now: Where will that lead him and the Trail Blazers?

Three Things to Know: Jason Kidd out in Milwaukee, now what for Bucks?

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Milwaukee fires Jason Kidd as coach. It’s the right move, but now what? It’s a move that caught the players in Milwaukee off guard, a move that will be trashed by some of the NBA’s old boy network, but something expected by many officials from other teams and league observers (although most thought it would be an offseason move).

Jason Kidd was fired as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks Monday.

It was the right move. Individual players grew under Kidd — Giannis Antetokounmpo blossomed into a superstar with the ball in his hands, and he was so unhappy with the move he offered to intervene and try to save Kidd’s job — but the team did not. Last season the Bucks went 42-40 in the regular season and were up 2-1 in their first-round playoff series against Toronto before ultimately losing in six, but as had happened too much with this team it was two steps up and one step back. The Bucks didn’t grow from there. The team entered this season with players talking of 50-win season and a top four seed (Las Vegas oddsmakers set the wins under/over at 47.5), and the expectation was the defense would finally come around. It didn’t. Kidd blamed the team’s youth to everyone — the media publicly and team management privately, asking for more veterans — yet he made some, shall we say, “interesting” end of game coaching decisions that left everyone bewildered. Kidd eventually backed off some on the ultra aggressive, trapping defensive style this team played — a style teams figured out how to beat with ball movement — but it wasn’t enough. The Bucks are 25th in the NBA in defense. With that they are 24-22, but with a negative point differential that suggests a 20-26 team, not one clinging to a playoff slot (currently seventh in the East, 1.5 games up on ninth-seed Detroit and missing the playoffs all together, fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 68 percent chance of making the postseason).

Now what?

For the rest of this season, long-time assistant Joe Prunty will run the show, and he will get the chance to Frank Vogel his way into the job if the team excels under him (and the moved was timed as the Bucks enter a soft part of the schedule, they can rack up some wins right now). However, more likely is a big off-season search where the biggest names in coaching without a job will come calling. Already two names bandied about are Jeff Van Gundy and former Pelicans coach Monty Williams. David Fizdale has to be considered. Every coach without a job will want this one — with Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and a host of long, athletic, quality role players (such as Thon Maker, Jon Henson and others) this team has a world of potential. It should be talked about with Minnesota and Philadelphia as the teams who have next in the NBA.

The Bucks have been rumored to be interested in DeAndre Jordan, is that still the case or will they try to make their moves in the off-season (when they can’t afford to sign Jordan or much of anyone else of consequence without shedding salary)? My guess is now the team now waits, it will want to consult with whoever is hired as coach.

Also, how will the Bucks at times feuding ownership play into all of this? New Yorkers Mark Lasry and Wes Edens have had their differences — Jon Horst is the GM now because the two sides could not agree on a candidate so they compromised on him, someone farther down on both lists. On the court this team is seen as one of the league’s best jobs with the most potential, but the coach may need to navigate ownership landmines along the way.

The Bucks move into their new arena next fall and there will be pressure on the new coach to bring the team up to the level of the building — the Bucks have the pieces to be one of the top teams in the East (a conference that could open up depending on what LeBron James chooses to do next summer). It’s a coveted job, but not an easy one.

2) DeMarcus Cousins has the kind of night nobody has had in 46 years. All-Star starter DeMarcus Cousins went off on the Bulls Monday night — 44 points, 24 rebounds, and 10 assists in the Pelicans’ double OT win against Chicago. These were not meaningless points, Cousins picked up seven of them in the second overtime.

The last time somebody had a 40/20/10 night in the NBA Elton John had just released “Rocket Man” — Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1972 when he was still playing in Milwaukee.

3) Locker room issues bubble up in San Antonio and Cleveland, but will it matter? Two things that can lead to locker room dissent in the NBA? Struggling teams on losing streaks pointing fingers, and guys with lingering injuries that were expected back.

We saw both of those creep up Monday, in San Antonio and Cleveland. The question is, will it matter to either organization come the playoffs? Probably not.

In Cleveland, losers of 8-of-11 and heading into a tough stretch of games, they held an emotional team meeting Monday’s practice, and Kevin Love became the whipping boy. Because the more things change, the more it’s still always Kevin Love’s fault. Other players questioned the illness that Love said he suffered that forced him to sit out much of Saturday’s blowout loss to the Thunder (he left the building before the game was over) and then miss practice Sunday. The meeting got heated, but Love spoke to the team to explain himself and that seemed to calm things down, mostly. For now. These team meetings make headlines, but most of the time prove to be meaningless on the court. Are the Cavaliers going to start to care and at least give some effort on defense after this? We’ll see. I wouldn’t bet on it lasting, it almost never does, but we’ll see.

In San Antonio, reports came up that the always quiet Kawhi Leonard has become “disconnected” from the team while dealing with the thigh injury that has let him play just nine games this season. Leonard and Popovich have always been on the same page, is this just frustration with a rehab on a quad injury that is just not healing as fast as anyone hoped and expected? Is it more than that? Both GM R.C. Buford and Leonard’s uncle denied any rift.

What happened with LaMarcus Aldridge shows us how this likely plays out. Aldridge demanded a trade last summer, but rather than panic and ship him out (for less than fair market value) Popovich sat down with Aldridge, figured out why he was frustrated, adjusted how he used him, and now Aldridge is happy — he signed an extension — and is having an All-Star season. Expect Popovich to figure out how to work with Leonard, too.