ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Miami Heat

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Last season: The Heat won their second straight championship in an epic seven-game battle against a Spurs team that had every chance to take home the title instead. On their way, Miami flirted with history by stringing together a 27-game winning streak that lasted late into March, and finished the season by winning an incredible 53 of its last 61 games. LeBron James took home both the regular season and Finals MVP awards.

Signature highlight from last season: Miami was on the verge of losing Game 6 of the Finals, and a championship right along with it. After trailing by five points with 28 seconds remaining, the Heat had cut it to three and had possession of the ball. LeBron missed a three that would have tied it, but Chris Bosh fought for the rebound and kicked it to Ray Allen, who stepped back behind the three-point line and delivered the season-saving dagger that will go down as one of the biggest shots in NBA history.

Key player changes: Miami didn’t do anything too drastic in terms of shaking up its roster, which is to be expected from a team looking to win its third straight title. But they did say goodbye to a key veteran piece, and rolled the dice on two players that have been busts everywhere else.

  • IN: Greg Oden is the only player who’s been added on a guaranteed deal for the upcoming season. Michael Beasley is in camp on a non-guaranteed deal, as is Roger Mason Jr. Miami has 13 players on guaranteed deals; it’s unlikely they’d guarantee two more to max out their roster before seeing who might be available later in the season.
  • OUT: Mike Miller was waived using the amnesty provision, saving the team a total of $17 million in what was purely a cost-cutting measure.

Keys to the Heat’s season:

1) The health of Dwyane Wade: The Heat were able to win the title even with Wade playing at far less than 100 percent. He had offseason shock treatment to try to rejuvenate his ailing knee, which is something he’s done in the past that provided successful results.

Managing Wade’s health throughout the season so that he’s as ready as possible for the playoffs may be the single most important factor in whether or not Miami can make its fourth straight trip to the Finals — a feat which hasn’t been accomplished since the Boston Celtics did it during the 1984-87 seasons.

2) Pace yourself: For Miami to be playing deep into June once again, the team will need to carefully manage the minutes of not only its star players, but its aging crop of reserves, as well. Guys like Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, and Ray Allen are becoming ancient by league standards, and while Allen and Battier seem to come through with big shots when it matters most, the reality is that they both have declining overall skill sets.

The good news is that the Heat seemed to do this to perfection last year — not so much in terms of limiting guys’ minutes, but the team coasted a bit through the first part of the season. On February 1, Miami had a rather pedestrian record of 29-14. Five teams in the West had better records at the time, and two others had notched the name number of victories to that point in the season’s schedule. It was only then that Miami flipped the switch and reeled off that huge winning streak which propelled them into the postseason.

If they can similarly conserve effort during the first few months while winning enough to stay with the pack, the Heat will be poised to make yet another late-season run.

3) Will standing pat be enough against a reloaded Eastern Conference?: This is perhaps the ultimate question.

A cursory glance around the East shows that at least three teams — Brooklyn, Indiana, and Chicago — should all be vastly improved this season. The Nets added Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Pacers shored up their bench unit by bringing in guys like Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson, plus they’ll see a healthy Danny Granger return to the lineup to boost the team’s offense. Derrick Rose is back for the Bulls, and by all accounts will be at full strength for the start of the season.

Those teams all got markedly better on paper, and we haven’t even mentioned the Knicks yet, who added Metta World Peace, Andrea Bargnani, and Beno Udrih to a team that finished last year with the second best record in the East.

Miami didn’t make any splashy additions in free agency, and preferred instead to return with the majority of last season’s roster intact. They may need either the Beasley or the Oden gamble to pay off to bolster the second unit, and both of those players are long shots at best given their respective career histories.

Why you should watch the Heat: LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world, and he’s in the prime of his career.

Prediction: 58-24, and a top-three seed in the East. Miami will be strong again this season, and while a third straight title given the way the top teams have improved certainly isn’t impossible, it does seem like a stretch. It may be foolish to count out LeBron at this stage of his career, but I see the Heat getting no further than the Eastern Conference Finals.

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did.

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.