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.”

Anthony Davis rattles rim with dunk on Juan Hernangomez (video)

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A sweet-shooting stretch four, Juan Hernangomez has a bright future in the NBA.

It’s not because of his rim protection.

Video Breakdown: How to ICE the pick-and-roll on defense

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NBA teams can defend the pick-and-roll game in many ways, but one of the most common is called ICE. This method sometimes goes by the name of Blue, Down, or Black, and it is ubiquitous as way to defend in the most popular offensive action in the modern NBA.

The basic idea is that the screener’s defender — usually a big man — stays parallel to the baseline and below the screen itself. The goal is to force the dribbler east to west, and to defend the paint while allowing for a lower percentage long range jumper.

The dribbler’s defender — usually a guard or a wing — fights over the top and pressures the shooter from above, ensuring that he cannot take a 3-pointer.

ICE pick-and-roll coverage has two main goals:

  1. Stop the ball handler and force the offense to move to another action.
  2. Stop a shot in the paint or at the 3-point line.

This varies from other kinds of pick-and-roll defense, including the hedge, the show, and the blitz. We’ll cover those in future videos, but you can get a little taste of them in a defensive glossary video I’ve done previously.

Meanwhile, get the full breakdown on ICE pick-and-roll coverage with the video breakdown above.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.