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.”

Sixers to keep Joel Embiid’s minutes in teens to start season, he’s not happy

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Joel Embiid wants to get on the court, he wants to unleash himself on the NBA this season. After three seasons of being bottled up — even in the 31 games he has played there was a minutes restriction — Embiid wants to impose his will on the league.

He’s going to have to do that in less than 20 minutes a night, at least to start the season.

Sixers coach Brett Brown says to start the season there will be a tight minutes limit on Embiid, who averaged less than 15 minutes in two preseason games after finally being cleared to play. Embiid does not like that. Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia has the quotes.

“I don’t really know if there’s a solid number,” Brett Brown said Monday after practice. “I can tell if you were to choose a number, it’s somewhere in the teens.”

“I didn’t know about that, but that’s very disappointing,” Embiid said Monday of the minutes restriction. “I feel great and hopefully that changes based on today’s practice and tomorrow’s practice.”

The Sixers being cautious with Embiid is about as surprising as the last Transformers movie sucking.

That said, if any particular game is close going into the fourth quarter don’t be shocked if Embiid breaks his minutes limit — this is a team that wants to start winning, and that means keeping their best players on the court longer. If Saturday night against the Raptors Brett Brown thinks giving Embiid 22-23 minutes helps get them the win, he will. The goal will be to get him up to the high 20s by the end of the season.

The real test for these Sixers will not be how the offense fairs with Embiid sitting — they have guys that can create and knock down shots if needed, such as Ben Simmons or J.J. Redick – instead it’s how well they can defend with him resting.

Report: Spurs signing LaMarcus Aldridge to two-year, $50 million contract extension

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From troubled to extended, LaMarcus Aldridge‘s Spurs tenure has changed directions in a hurry.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Piecing this together, Aldridge is exercising a $22,347,015 player option for 2018-19. That means his extension is worth $50 million over two years will carry him through age 35. All in all, Aldridge is now under contract for four more seasons.

Aldridge is a borderline All-Star, and he raises San Antonio’s floor. His back-to-the-bask mid-range games remains reliable, and he’s a willing defender. Him signing this deal should end pining for greener pastures, but it certainly won’t force him into diligent acceptance of his role forever. Players can become discontent whenever they please.

This extension significantly limits the Spurs flexibility the next two summers and maybe even in 2020, depending on Aldridge’s guarantee in the second year of his extension. They seem fine with that, perhaps believing they already have enough to topple the Warriors if Kawhi Leonard is healthy.

With Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Patty Mills all under contract for the few years around Leonard, San Antonio should remain stably good. But will these deals for aging veterans limit the Spurs’ ceiling? That’s the risk for an organization that has built its identity on championships and already has a young, in-his-prime superstar who has proven capable of being the best player on a title team.

Hawks: Dennis Schroder will face discipline for physical altercation

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Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder was arrested on a misdemeanor battery charge a couple weeks ago.

Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk in a statement:

“There is an ongoing investigation into the details of the incident involving Dennis Schröder that occurred on Sept. 29th. During this process, we plan to support Dennis as we would any of our players working through a situation.

However, from our preliminary findings, we are aware that Dennis was involved in a physical altercation. That behavior is unacceptable, will not be tolerated by the Hawks organization, and will result in discipline for Dennis at the appropriate time once the matter has been more fully developed through the law enforcement process and otherwise.

Dennis has accepted responsibility for his actions. He looks forward to learning from this incident and focusing on the season.”

On one hand, it’s odd that the Hawks are both deferring to the process and pledging discipline. On the other hand, teams should more often make their own judgments on how to handle these issues than blindly rely on the legal system.

This statement is intentionally vague, and it gives the Hawks wide latitude in how to proceed. Eventually – likely dependent on legal outcomes – they’ll reveal Schroder’s punishment.

NBA season predictions: Who wins East? West? NBA Finals?

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Tuesday the NBA marathon begins, and it will run until June with 1,230 regular season games and what the league hopes are a more intense, contested playoffs than last season.

Which will probably all end with the Warriors and the Cavaliers in the Finals. Again. For the fourth year in a row.

We’ve already given you our awards predictions for the coming season, now here are the NBC Sports NBA staff’s picks for the NBA standings and playoffs.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Bucks
5. Raptors
6. Heat
7. Hornets
8. 76ers
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Celtics

It is possible Boston (or even Washington, if their starting five stays healthy and you like longshots) outpace Cleveland in the regular season, but come the playoffs a healthy Cleveland team will be the clear best team. I think the Raptors take a step back due to lost depth (and the Bucks are improving). I have the Sixers slipping into the playoffs but if Reggie Jackson returns to form Detroit could nab that spot.

Dan Feldman:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Raptors
5. Bucks
6. Hornets
7. Heat
8. 76ers
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Celtics

The Cavaliers and Celtics are in one tier, Wizards and Raptors in another and Bucks, Hornets and Heat in a third. The 76ers share the fourth tier with the Pistons, and I’m predicting Joel Embiid will be just healthy enough to get Philadelphia into the playoffs — but that’s a huge unknown.

Dane Carbaugh:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Raptors
5. Bucks
6. Heat
7. Pacers
8. Pistons
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Wizards

Even though the Celtics added Irving to their roster they still have a lack of depth after trading both Crowder and Bradley. They will be relying on their young players to come through in playoff time, and it’s more reasonable to think that will happen in the coming seasons. The Cavaliers are still the team to beat and it doesn’t feel like the Wizards will have enough to get past them.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin:
1. Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Thunder
4. Spurs
5. Timberwolves
6. Nuggets
7. Clippers
8. Trail Blazers
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Thunder

Is Golden State going to win more than 70 games? The Warriors are at the top, then you can put the Rockets/Thunder/Spurs in any order and I would buy it (although the Kawhi Leonard injury to start the season leads to San Antonio questions). The final three spots will come down to the Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, and Jazz and the teams that get the slots will be the ones that stay healthy.

Dan Feldman:
1. Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Thunder
4. Spurs
5. Timberwolves
6. Nuggets
7. Jazz
8. Trail Blazers
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Rockets

It’s obviously the Warriors then everyone else. The Rockets, Thunder, and Spurs are the most serious challengers. The Timberwolves and Nuggets are up-and-comers. The next tier — which also includes the Clippers and maybe Pelicans — could see an incredibly competitive race just to make the playoffs.

Dane Carbaugh:
1.Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Spurs
4. Thunder
5. Wolves
6. Clippers
7. Blazers
8. Jazz
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Rockets

I think we all want this series to happen if only because it will give us an inclination of what it’s like to watch a Mike D’Antoni team adapt on offense to an opponent he has all year to scout. Still, the question for most teams out West will be whether they can match the Warriors on both sides of the ball. People somehow forget that Golden State is typically a Top 5 defensive team. I’m not sure anybody can really match that.

NBA FINALS

KURT: Warriors over Cavaliers
DAN: Warriors over Cavaliers
DANE: Warriors over Cavaliers

It’s boring, we know. All three of us — and most of the rest of the NBA universe — picking a fourth straight meeting between the Golden State and Cleveland. But how do you not? If they are both healthy this seems inevitable. No team in the NBA is on the Warriors level. Boston doesn’t have the defense, Washington doesn’t have the depth to challenge the Cavaliers in the East. Things happen, the NBA rarely follows the script, but it’s hard not to envision this outcome.