Chicago Bulls v Miami Heat - Game Four

Ten NBA must-watch games this season

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The NBA schedule is out and it’s a little like Christmas Day (unless you’re a beat reporter, then it’s explain to your wife how much you’ll be gone day, which is a lot less fun). Today is the day you can really start to taste the matchups that are coming.

There are more good storylines than there are A-Rod suspension days in the new schedule, but here are the 10 must-watch games that leapt off the page at me. No, Brandon Jennings return to Milwaukee somehow did not make the cut. Sorry.

Oct. 29, Chicago Bulls at Miami Heat: Opening night’s marquee game, when the Chicago Bulls get to watch the Miami Heat get their rings and raise a banner, then Chicago will unleash a returned Derrick Rose on them. You know, the Rose who think’s he’s the best player in the NBA. Anyway…. we get two elite teams in the East to start the season and that works for me.

The second half of the televised double-header that night has the Clippers at the Lakers, which could see Kobe’s return from an Achilles rupture. (Also, Orlando visits Indiana that night… which isn’t exactly going on the marquee.)

Dec. 4, Minnesota Timberwolves at San Antonio Spurs in Mexico City: Los Spurs head to the capital of Mexico, but more than just some impressive establishing shots, is this could be a really fun game. Ricky Rubio vs. Tony Parker. Kevin Love vs. Tim Duncan. They NBA isn’t sending a clunker south of the border.

Dec. 18, Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat: These two teams went seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Since then the Heat added Greg Oden to deal with the size of Roy Hibbert (we’ll see if Oden is available and playing by this date). The Pacers got a lot deeper in this offseason and it starts with getting Danny Granger back. This could well be an Eastern Conference Finals preview again.

Dec. 25 (Christmas Day), Oklahoma City Thunder at New York Knicks: Plenty of interesting Christmas Day games, but this one may be the most entertaining — Kevin Durant vs. Carmelo Anthony, the two guys likely to be battling for the league scoring title. That game could get hijacked by Russell Westbrook and J.R. Smith, and I’m okay with that shootout.

Dec. 25, Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors: Sure, why not two Christmas Day games, that’s when much of the nation starts focusing on the NBA anyway. After the guests have gone and the kids have passed out clutching their new baseball glove/Barbie/PSP Go grab a beverage, settle down on the couch and get ready for Chris Paul vs. Stephen Curry. These teams are going to be two of the best offenses in the NBA this season, and while in the big picture it is defense that will decide how far they go, on this night a fun shootout would work just fine.

(The other Christmas Day games are the Bulls at Nets, Heat at Lakers, and Rockets at Spurs. The nightcaps could be the best games of the day.)

Jan. 20, Indiana Pacers at Golden State Warriors: The Martin Luther King Day slate for the NBA is good — including the Nets traveling to play the Knicks, and Knicks fans hate the Nets and how they are challenging them in the East — but at the end of the day is this sneaky fun game of matchups: Can Andrew Bogut stay on the court and keep Roy Hibbert and the size of the Pacers in check? Can the Pacers defense slow down Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala? This will be a good test of styles.

Jan. 26 (2014), San Antonio Spurs at Miami Heat: An NBA Finals rematch, and if it is played anywhere near the same high level or is as entertaining as the big games in that series, we all win.

Jan. 26, Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics: Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are still loved in Boston, and this is their homecoming. There will be a standing ovation, video tributes and tears shed. This is going to be emotional.

Feb. 19, Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers: No fanbase believes in their manifest destiny more than the Lakers fans — years of stars eagerly coming there and a whole lot of titles have them believing that championships are their birthright. Then Dwight Howard reluctantly comes to Los Angeles for a season, plays well below his standards, then bolts for the Rockets. This is Howard’s homecoming game in Los Angeles and you can be sure the fans there will show him the “love.”

Feb. 20, Miami Heat at Oklahoma City Thunder: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant… who doesn’t want to see the worlds two best players go head-to-head?

Heat, in first playoff series win without LeBron James in a decade, look complete

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) dunks against the Charlotte Hornets in the first half of Game 7 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
AP Photo/Alan Diaz
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As the national anthem played, a tear streaked down Dwyane Wade‘s cheek.

“I knew tonight would be a great moment for these guys,” Wade said. “I felt that we was going to win this game. I knew that our energy and our crowd was going to be enough, and we was going to be prepared. And I was just thinking about how these guys was going to feel after playing a Game 7.”

Pretty darn great.

The Heat beat the Hornets, 106-73, Sunday in the fifth-most lopsided Game 7 in NBA history. Miami – which will face winner of tonight’s Raptors-Pacers Game 7 – won its first playoff series win without LeBron James since 2006.

Pairing Wade with another superstar (Shaquille O’Neal for the 2006 championship) or two (LeBron and Chris Bosh for the 2012 and 2013 titles) has worked. But that option went out the window this season when blood clots sidelined Bosh at the All-Star break for the second straight year.

With Wade’s waning athleticism forcing him to pick his spots more often, he has needed more help than ever. His teammates have provided it.

Hassan Whiteside (10 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks) and Goran Dragic (25 points, six rebounds and four assists) led the way in Game 6.

Whiteside defended at an elite level. The Hornets shot just 2-for-11 in the restricted area with him on the court. I don’t know what’s more stunning – that they shot so poorly or attempted so few close-range shots in 28 minutes. Whiteside struck fear in the paint.

Dragic’s 25 points were his most in seven weeks and one shy of his playoff high. His aggressiveness fueled so much more. Miami’s offensive rating was 120.1 with him on the court.

“That’s the Goran Dragic we all love,” said Wade, who scored 12 points and had lost his last three playoff games when scoring so little. “Just putting so much pressure on the defense, and it allows other guys to just chill out – especially me.”

Wade can’t always carry the Heat – though sometimes he still can – but he remains the face of the franchise. Whether or not his teammates provide enough support almost reflects more on him than it does them. Fortunately for him, they look up to the task of making him look good.

It’s far too early to look ahead to a juicy Heat-Cavaliers conference finals, but Miami should be favored against either Indiana or Toronto.

Yes, it took seven games to vanquish Charlotte, but the Heat outscored the Hornets by 62 points – the third-largest combined margin ever in a seven-game series. The last team to win a seven-game series or a Game 7 by such decisive margins was the 2008 Celtics, who beat the Hawks by 34 in Game 7 to cap a +84 first-round series. Boston went on to win a title that year.

Will Miami follow that path? Probably not, but there’s something to be said about so thoroughly outplaying a difficult-to-beat opponent.

The Hornets were no pushovers – at least until today, when the Heat dominated on the glass and got most loose balls. In this series, Charlotte earned its first three playoff wins since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. The Hornets’ first best-of-seven series victory remains elusive and a potentially turbulent offseason awaits, but this group came to play.

Miami was just too good on both ends of the floor.

In the second quarter, Whiteside cut off a Kemba Walker drive, forcing the point guard to give up the ball. Whiteside then rotated to cover Al Jefferson (the type of multiple-contest defense many doubted Whiteside could execute) and emphatically blocked Jefferson’s shot.

The ball went to Dragic, who immediately sped up court. Dragic, who entered the game shooting 37% from the field, spun around Courtney Lee before anyone else could catch up to provide help and made a layup.

Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, the team’s energetic rookies who had big moments earlier in the series but provided less today, jumped up and down and spun around on the bench. The rest of the team wasn’t far behind in its cheering.

All the while, Wade barely took a few steps forward, remaining back on defense and watching it all unfold in front of him – a starless group of teammates he knew were capable of delivering.

Even without Stephen Curry, adjusting for playoff rotations still favors Warriors over Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, right, drives the ball against Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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When the Warriors put five players expected to be in the playoff rotation on the floor during the regular season, they outscored opponents by 20.9 points per 100 possessions.

No other team even neared that level with five of its own playoff-rotation players.

The second-place Spurs (+13.1 adjusted net rating) were closer to 10th place than first place.

But Golden State’s supremacy obviously took a hit when Stephen Curry got hurt. How do the Warriors rate without him in the rotation?

As I did before the first round, I’ve used nba wowy! to rank Western Conference playoff teams by net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only lineups that include five players in the team’s postseason rotation. Both the regular season and first round factored.

I wrote more about the Thunder’s and Spurs’ adjusted ratings yesterday. The East will come after its second-round series are set.

For now, here’s each Western Conference team’s rating, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the second-round rotation:

Western Conference

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 110.5 to 110.0
  • Defensive rating: 99.4 to 96.1
  • Net rating: +11.1 to +13.9

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 113.6 to 117.3
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.6
  • Net rating: +7.6 to +12.7

1. Golden State Warriors

  • Offensive rating: 114.9 to 119.7 to 109.1
  • Defensive rating: 104.1 to 98.8 to 103.8
  • Net rating: +10.8 to +20.9 to +5.3

5. Portland Trail Blazers

  • Offensive rating: 108.9 to 111.0 to 110.3
  • Defensive rating: 108.2 to 107.9 to 107.5
  • Net rating: +0.7 to +3.1 to +2.8

Observations:

  • By this metric, there’s a clear main event and undercard here – at least if the Spurs and Thunder don’t keep playing like they did last night.
  • Golden State obviously takes a big tumble without Curry, but this measure shows the limit of saying the Warriors got outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions without Curry during the regular season. Golden State’s other top players – Draymond Green (88%), Klay Thompson (85%), Andrew Bogut (85%), Harrison Barnes (66%) and Andre Iguodala (60%) – played a majority of their minutes with Curry. Put them on the court more in these Curry-less games, and it’ll help.
  • With Curry in the rotation (and Ian Clark and Brandon Rush out), the Warriors’ adjusted offensive/defensing/net ratings shoot right back up into the stratosphere: 119.8/98.7/+21.1. Golden State must just holds its ground until Curry returns. This measure suggests the Warriors can against Portland, especially with home-court advantage also in their favor.

Playoff Preview: Four things to watch in Portland vs. Golden State series

at ORACLE Arena on April 3, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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Portland has wildly exceeded expectations this season, making the playoffs as the five seed and getting past a banged-up Clippers team to the second round. But the NBA does not do Cinderellas well, this will be the end of the road. Here are the four questions we’re asking heading into this series.

1) When will Stephen Curry return? If Portland has a chance in this series, they need to do a lot of damage before the past-and-future MVP returns from his sprained knee. The question is when will that be? Curry is out for Game 1 and has yet to do any on court work, but Steve Kerr would not rule him out for Game 2 on Tuesday, although that may be gamesmanship as much as anything. But after Game 2 the teams are off for four days until the Saturday, May 7, and that may be enough time for him to return. Whenever he does come back, the dynamics change and the Warriors become a much more dangerous, much better team — one Portland can’t handle. The Blazers need to get all the wins early in this series they can.

Which isn’t very easy, Curry or no.

2) How will the Warriors defend Damian Lillard? When Lillard has gone up against his hometown team — he’s from Oakland — he averaged 36.5 points per game this season. Expect Klay Thompson to draw the assignment to cover him at the start of games, but also expect the Warriors to steal a page from the Clippers’ strategy and trap Lillard and C.J. McCollum each time they come off a pick. The idea is to force the ball out of the hands of the two best playmakers and make Al-Farouq Aminu or Maurice Harkless or anyone else beat you. Aminu and Harkless will find the Warriors defense works on a string better than the Clippers and their shots will get contested.

However, most of the time, the Warriors will switch the pick-and-roll, which they usually do (especially when they go small) and Lillard will find Draymond Green in his face. Blazers coach Terry Stotts has to find ways to get Lillard playing downhill off those picks to have a chance.

3) Can the Trail Blazers hit their threes? In Portland’s win over Golden State in the regular season (just after the All-Star break), they put up 137 points and made it rain threes — the Trail Blazers need to do that again. However, the Warriors were one of the better teams in the league at defending the arc this season, holding opponents to 33.2 percent from deep (second best in the league) and allowing the second fewest corner threes (although they are more willing to allow threes above the arc). Portland does not have a good enough defense to stop Golden State consistently even without Curry, they will just have to outscore the Warriors, and to do that it has to rain threes again.

4) How will Portland defend Klay Thompson and Draymond Green? Both of these key Warriors cogs had strong regular seasons against Portland — Green averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 8.8 assists, while Thompson averaged 29.3 points shooting 59.4 percent from three. Obviously, that was with Curry on the floor drawing defenders, but Portland is not exactly known for their lock-down defense. Without Curry, expect Aminu to get a lot of time on Thompson, but that alone is not going to slow him. Also, expect the Warriors to post up Thompson, Shaun Livingston, or anyone else that Lillard and McCollum guard — the hardest part about defending Golden State is there is no place to hide weak defenders. The Warriors will expose the Portland defense.

Prediction: Warriors in 6. And that assumes Curry is out until Game 5, if he is back earlier than that the series likely ends in 5.

Report: Heat complained to ‘highest levels of the league office’ about favorable calls for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker

Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker (15) is congratulated by Jeremy Lin (7) after making a basket against the Sacramento Kings in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Nov. 23, 2015. The Hornets won 127-122 in overtime. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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The Heat and Hornets are clearly tiring of each other, six games of testiness culminating with Game 7 today.

One particular battle line being drawn is over Jeremy Lin (6.3) and Kemba Walker (5.5), who lead players in this series in free-throw attempts per game.

Marc Stein:

ESPN sources say that one of the factors that ramped up the tension between the teams stems from Miami complaints to the highest levels of the league office after Game 4 about what the Heat deemed to be favorable officiating for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker.

Lin and Walker relentlessly driven to the basket. That’s why they’ve attempted so many free throws. If Miami wants to keep them off the line, trap them harder on the perimeter.

That said, this is part of playoff gamesmanship. If the Heat plant a seed with referees – through the league office or otherwise – that Lin and Walker are drawing too many fouls, maybe that affects a call today. With the margins so narrow, every little bit helps.