What to expect from LeBron and the Heat?

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You’re busy, so I’ll save you some time: a championship.  They’ve won two straight, basically their entire squad is coming back, and their best guy is the most dynamic and exciting player since Michael Jordan.  The Heat have all the tools they need to make a run at a three-peat – but even with them all in place, the bigger question is: who might stop them?

The way I see it, there are 6 teams that could have a chance: 4 longshots and 2 serious threats.  Let’s start with the East.

EASTERN 

The Bulls: Chicago is a good team without Derrick Rose, and a title contender with (the old) Derrick Rose.  But how deep can they go in the postseason? Thing is, Rose’s most recent relevant data points are from 18 months and a horrific knee injury ago.  He looked great in the preseason, but it’s far too early to see how his knee will hold up long-term: it’s just been too long since we’ve seen him play a full year.  Time will tell, but Rose’s return makes me hesitate – right now, the Bulls are a longshot to stop the Heat.

The Nets:  Again, too soon – but for a different reason.  The team hinges on Deron Williams and Brook Lopez: a great combo, but Lebron’s supporting cast (Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier – the list goes on) far outstrips its counterparts in Brooklyn.  Depth is key, and the Nets don’t have Miami’s lung capacity.  As for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, they’re not getting any younger, and I’ll be surprised if their presence tips the scales in the Nets’ favor.

The Pacers: Though summertime roster moves did bolster their bench, Indiana is the only team of these three that remains largely unchanged since nearly beating Miami in the East Finals last year.  A missed assignment here, a blown call there, and one or two plays could have made the difference for the Pacers going to the NBA Finals.  Paul George and Danny Granger should continue to emerge, Roy Hibbert should continue to dominate (just ask Tyson Chandler), and with C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland the bench is stronger.  We’ve actually seen this team play the Heat, and nearly beat them.  All in all, in the East the Pacers have the best preseason shot at upending the Heat.

WESTERN 

The Spurs: Another team we’ve seen play the Heat and nearly beat them, plus I’ve learned my lesson in the past: never count out Gregg Popovich, and never say Tim Duncan’s too old.  Obviously at some point Duncan will be too old, but the man just keeps putting up rock-solid numbers and defense year after year.  Besides, he’s not the brains of the operation anyways – Tony Parker’s running point, and Pop’s the reason for the dynasty.  History teaches me not to bet against those three pieces, so watch out for the Spurs.  (Playoff sweeps are telling – just ask the Grizzlies) Can San Antonio beat the Heat? Maybe – probably not, but they came very close last year and they could likely again be one of the last few standing.

The Rockets: Two words: Dwight Howard.  The D’Antoni/Kobe/Dwight circus show was wearing thin in L.A., and it’ll be interesting to see how Dwight fits into the Rocket’s culture. Last year was miserable, and now he’s got a fresh start, a new city, and a great young core with Chandler Parsons and James Harden.  But again, we run into a common theme this year: the unknown.  Howard alters teams and defenses with his presence, but he’s never played with these guys under this system in this city with this coach and this organization.  Signs are positive, but there’s just no way to tell this early – so far it’s all he-said she-said guesswork.  Can they beat Miami in seven games?  Not right now.  So much hype, and to even get there they’d have to move past…

The Thunder: Kevin Durant is a killer, simple as that.  He’s the deadliest player not named LeBron James.  He has zero conscience from three; he’s Magic Johnson’s awareness with Bob Cousy’s handles and Reggie Miller’s stroke.  Durant, Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson – their guard play is phenomenal.  Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins round it out inside, but the key is the guard play.  If the Thunder have an advantage over the Heat, it’s depth on the wing.  If they can exploit that, throwing bodies at LeBron enough to tire him out and slow him down just enough, OKC could have the best chance to beat the Heat (unless the Pacers get them first, in which case whatever will Sportscenter talk about in June??).

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Honorable Mention: Clippers, Warriors.  Both electrifying teams, great fun to watch, but missing some pieces.  Clippers need a stronger paint presence (DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a high-flying trapeze act, not game-changing forwards); the Warriors need some time to gel, and for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to play off each other – watch out for Golden State in the next few years.

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WRAPPING UP 

The Pacers and the Thunder have the best shot at beating the Heat.  Indiana nearly beat them last time, and come back this year with more experience and a deeper bench.  The Thunder have the guard depth to counter LeBron, but that may not make a difference anyways with the Heat’s top-to-bottom array of weapons.

Bottom line?  The Pacers can beat the Heat, as can the Thunder, but it will take each team’s perfect stretch of seven games (because there’s no way the Heat lose in less than seven) to do it.  Miami, on the other hand, has the athleticism, depth, leadership, and firepower to win again.  That is what to expect from LeBron and the Heat – another championship.  They are not a perfect team, and they can be beaten – but in the end, the most likely scenario I see is LeBron & Co. with Miami’s first franchise three-peat.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.