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.”

Chris Paul scores 29, Clippers beat Jazz 98-93 to force Game 7

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Clippers coach Doc Rivers put it simply when he said Chris Paul willed his team to victory with the season on the line.

Paul scored 29 points and the Los Angeles Clippers forced a Game 7 in their first-round series with a 98-93 victory over the Utah Jazz on Friday night.

The Clippers will host the only do-or-die game of the first round Sunday, with the winner advancing to face the Golden State Warriors.

“It’s just Chris,” Rivers said. “He is as competitive as a human being as I’ve ever been around. When you put that with the talent and the will, that’s why he has performances like this in big games.

“Chris was amazing. He just willed the game for us.”

Los Angeles began to edge away in the third quarter and appeared to be in control when Austin Rivers capped a 9-2 run with a step-back 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 91-77 with 3:58 remaining.

He hit another with 1:29 left to make it 96-86, but Gordon Hayward scored seven straight to bring the Jazz within three before Joe Johnson missed a 3-pointer in the waning seconds.

Paul pushed Los Angeles throughout the night and just wouldn’t let the Clippers lose. The nine-time All-Star dominated and finished with eight assists, three rebounds and two steals. DeAndre Jordan added 13 points and 18 rebounds.

“We do it together,” Paul said. “I came to (Jordan) during one of those timeouts in the fourth and said let’s find a way. We’ve been in these situations time and time again. Some of us since we were kids playing AAU. You’ve just been in that situation. High school basketball. College basketball. It’s the same game, it’s just a lot more people at the games. You just go out there and try to stay in the moment.”

The Clippers overcame a slow start to finish at 49 percent shooting from the field. The Jazz went in the opposite direction, getting sloppy with the ball in the third quarter and making numerous defensive mistakes. They also shot just 41.0 percent from the field and were 7 for 26 from behind the arc.

Hayward led the Jazz with 31 points, George Hill added 22 and Rudy Gobert finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.

“I thought we were competing,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “I’m not sure if we got tired or got tired of missing. They were the more energetic team. Their physicality on the defensive end, we didn’t respond offensively the way that we needed to, or as forceful as we needed to be.

“When you’re not aggressive enough with your frame of mind, I don’t think you shoot the ball as well.”

The Clippers took a 47-45 lead into halftime after closing on an 8-2 run, including a pair of jumpers by Luc Mbah a Moute.

The Jazz jumped out to a 22-13 lead and looked to be on the brink blowing the game wide open before the offense went cold and the Clippers ripped off an 11-0 run. Utah shot just 3 for 13 from 3-point range in the first half and missed several wide-open attempts.

“Some days are diamonds, some days are stones,” Hayward said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well tonight. We got the looks we wanted, which is a positive thing for us. I think that’s the important part, we found the open shots, found the good looks.

“Dug ourselves a hole there and it’s hard to dig out of it. I don’t think we were nervous, we just couldn’t find it tonight.”

TIP-INS

Clippers: Austin Rivers started for the first time this series after missing the first four games with a hamstring injury. … Jordan’s six double-doubles in the first six games are a playoff high. … The Clippers held Johnson to 3-for-9 shooting.

Jazz: Utah is 5-1 all-time when leading a playoff series 3-2. … The Jazz opened the game as the only team in the playoffs ranking in the top three in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.

GOBERT OK

Gobert was taken out of the game in the fourth quarter after suffering a mild left ankle sprain. X-rays were negative and he’s expected to be fine for Game 7.

PAINT POINTS

The team with the points-in-the-paint advantage won the first five games. That streak came to an end as the Jazz outscored the Clippers 42-36 in the paint.

Report: Magic will offer team president job to David Griffin after Cavaliers’ season ends

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David Griffin has been the man pulling  the strings for Cleveland since LeBron James returned to town — he made the trades for everyone from Kevin Love through Kyle Korver, he fired David Blatt mid-season to bring in Tyron Lue, and he locked up the Cavaliers’ core for years — but apparently that hasn’t been enough. Even with LeBron’s endorsement.

Griffin doesn’t have a contract past the end of this season in Cleveland.

However, the Orlando Magic plan to offer him one, reports Brian Windhorst of ESPN.

The Orlando Magic intend to offer their president of basketball operations position to Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, multiple sources said.

The Magic can engage Griffin in contract talks at the conclusion of the Cavs’ season, sources said.

Griffin’s contract with Cleveland is up at the end of the season, and he and the team have not held meaningful discussions on an extension.

One of two things is happening here.

First, this could be a leak out of Griffin’s agent in an attempt to get the Cavaliers to pony up. The threat of competition might get Cleveland to up its offer, or at least to move more quickly than the very deliberate pace they are on now.

Second, the Magic are serious while the Cavaliers are ready to move on. To a degree what LeBron wants LeBron gets in Cleveland, but there could be dynamics pushing the Cavaliers to move on from Griffin. The fact there have been not substantial talks with Cleveland suggests a rift.

The Cavaliers can work out a deal quickly. The question is will they? It’s going to be an interesting summer on the lake.

Avery Bradley scores 23, Celtics eliminate Bulls 105-83

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CHICAGO (AP) — Avery Bradley scored 23 points, and the hot-shooting Boston Celtics pounded the Chicago Bulls 105-83 to win their first-round series 4-2 on Friday night.

The top-seeded Celtics simply torched Chicago to finish off a tougher-than-anticipated series and advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Boston regrouped after dropping the first two games at home and will meet Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Game 1 is Sunday.

Bradley finished one point shy of a playoff career high he set in Game 5. He nailed three 3-pointers and the Celtics hit 16 of 39 from long range.

Gerald Green scored 16 and Isaiah Thomas had 12 before heading home to Washington state for his sister Chyna’s funeral on Saturday. Her death in a car accident the day before the playoff opener dealt a blow to the Celtics. But Boston rallied around its star player and regrouped when it looked like the series might slip from reach.

Jimmy Butler led Chicago with 23 points. But the Bulls never really found their rhythm over the final four games with point guard Rajon Rondo sidelined by a broken right thumb.

Dwyane Wade shot just 1 of 10 in a two-point effort that could be his final appearance for the Bulls. He has a $23.8 million option on the two-year deal he signed last summer to leave Miami and come home to Chicago.

The Celtics led by 13 at the half and outscored the Bulls 34-18 in the third quarter to put this one away. Things got so bad that loud boos started ringing through the United Center.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Bradley said he was planning to attend Chyna Thomas’ funeral. That hinged on the flight options and whether the Celtics were playing on Sunday. “If I’m not able to be there I’m going to make sure I’m supporting him however I can to let him know I’m here for him during this time,” Bradley said.

Bulls: Hoiberg said there is no structural damage in Butler’s right knee. He also had this response when asked what soreness means: “Uh, that it hurts.” … New Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 pick in the draft, got a rude welcome from the Chicago crowd. He was booed when he was shown on the videoboard in the third quarter.

“Fire Hoiberg” chants break out as Bulls eliminated from playoffs

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The problems with the Chicago Bulls — the ones that led to a mediocre season and a first-round exit from the playoffs after being up 2-0 on the Celtics — are certainly not all coach Fred Hoiberg’s fault. Blame starts with the roster that GarPax put together.

However, Hoiberg didn’t have the respect of his stars, his rotation management was bizarre at points, and there just seemed to be no consistent structure. What kind of team where the Bulls trying to be? What was Hoiberg doing to get them there?

As the Bulls were being eliminated by the Celtics Friday night, “Fire Hoiberg” chants broke out at the United Center.

Bulls fans are understandably frustrated, but they are not going to get this wish. Not this summer.

Hoiberg was the handpicked replacement for Tom Thibodeau, the guy Gar Forman and John Paxson — the Bulls front office brain trust — had their eye on and plucked out of the college coaching ranks. They bet big on him, and to admit that was a mistake after two years could endanger their jobs. So Hoiberg will stay.

What the Bulls roster will look like next season is another, more vexing question. Will Dwyane Wade be back? Jimmy Butler? With the seeming lack of a plan by GarPax, it’s all just speculation where they might go.

Whatever happens, Hoiberg will be coaching Chicago next season. Sorry Bulls fans.