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.

Hawks’ Tim Hardaway Jr. kneed in the groin while defending 76ers (video)

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Since trading for him, the Hawks have gotten Tim Hardaway Jr. to buy in defensively.

After this help defense on 76ers center Richaun Holmes cost him dearly, I wouldn’t blame Hardaway if he gave up on the endeavor entirely.

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: Warriors, Russell Westbrook make statements

Associated Press
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You missed Wednesday night’s NBA action because you were busy watching videos then making your favorite foods seen on television shows and movies — like the ratatouille from Ratatouille — and we can respect that. Here’s what you missed around the NBA while you were cooking.

1) Warriors end doubt about who will finish with top seed in West, make playoff statement by coming from 22-down to beat Spurs. The Golden State Warriors, with a healthy Kevin Durant (as we saw the middle of this season) is the most talented team in the NBA, and it will be difficult for any team to beat them in a seven-game series.

Wednesday night we had to ask: Are the Golden State Warriors without Kevin Durant still the most talented and best team in the NBA?

The answer the last two nights has been yes. First, the Warriors beat the Rockets and hold James Harden in relative check. Then the next night the Warriors come from 22 down to beat the Spurs in San Antonio, dominating the game’s final three quarters. That ninth-straight win all but assured the Warriors the top seed in the West. It also was a statement from Golden State — nobody is better than us right now… and by the way, we get to add Kevin Durant

It also was a statement from Golden State — nobody is better than us right now… and by the way, we get to add Kevin Durant back to the mix in a couple of weeks.

It didn’t look like the Warriors were going to make a statement early in this game.

However, in the NBA a massive first-quarter lead is almost never safe against a good team that can shoot the three. Those leads get blown all the time. And by the second quarter, the Stephen Curry (29 points for the game) and Klay Thompson (23 points) shooting exhibition was on. By the third quarter, the Warriors were in the lead and looking to take command.

The guy who plunged the daggers into San Antonio was former Spur David West, who was fantastic in the fourth quarter and finished with 15 points.

Yes, Golden State looked like the team to beat heading into the playoffs last year, and all they did was have a chance to win it all in the final minutes of Game 7 of the Finals (Cleveland closed that out better). Those Warriors were a very good team — and this year’s version may be better. The ultimate test of that is ahead. But the statement they are the team to beat has been made loud and clear the last two nights.

2) Every time you don’t think Russell Westbrook can do more… he set an NBA record with a 57-point triple-double in Thunder comeback win. I don’t know if Russell Westbrook is going to win the NBA MVP award — I get the sense a lot of voters are swayed by the numbers/efficiency/wins James Harden is putting up — but I know I can’t stop watching him.

Wednesday night was another show — and I don’t just mean the 57 points, the 13 rebounds, and the 11 assists, becoming the first player ever in the NBA with a 57-point triple double. I mean leading a team back from a 21-point third quarter deficit, then hitting the game-tying three to force overtime when everyone in the building knew he would take it but he pulled up from 30 off the dribble and drained it anyway. I mean the rim-rattling dunks, but also the seven points in overtime to secure the win. I mean the smart passes when the entire Orlando defense seemed to collapse on him. Westbrook did it all.

I keep hearing about how Westbrook is chasing stats. Maybe somewhat. However, what I see is a guy chasing wins and knowing the only way the Thunder get those is if he is nothing short of brilliant — the Warriors have a .815 winning percentage when Westbrook gets a triple-double and .333 when he doesn’t. The Thunder need him to play this way, they are a bad team when he is off the court. When he is on it, you can’t take your eyes off him.

3) Milwaukee shows why it will be a tough out in playoffs, beats Boston and knocks Celtics back into a tie with Cavaliers. The single best moment on Wednesday night was when Giannis Antetokounmpo and Isaiah Thomas had to face off for a jump ball.

It may be a little bit on the nose, but that was a good metaphor for this game — Milwaukee is a big, long team loaded with athletes and on this night Boston could not overcome them. Thomas has a strong game with 32 points and kept things close — Marcus Smart missed a three to tie at the end — but the Bucks had better balance and depth (the Greek Freak had 22, Khris Middleton added 19).

I’d still pick the Celtics in a seven-game series (although the Bucks look to be the Raptors’ first-round problem) but let this game serve as a reminder that the Bucks will not go quietly into that good night. Also, you may want to avoid jump balls with them.

Stephen Curry scores 29, leads Warriors’ rally over Spurs 110-98

Associated Press
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Stephen Curry scored 29 points, Klay Thompson had 23 and the Golden State Warriors rallied from a 22-point deficit in the opening quarter to beat the San Antonio Spurs 110-98 on Wednesday night for their ninth straight win.

Golden State extended its lead over San Antonio to 3 1/2 games for the league’s best record, beating the Spurs for the first time in three meetings this season.

Kawhi Leonard had 19 points and five assists for San Antonio. Leonard shot 7 for 20 from the field while being guarded by a rotation of defenders.

The Spurs had a five-game winning streak halted in inglorious fashion. San Antonio got off to its best start of the season two days after dismantling Cleveland in a 29-point victory. The Spurs raced to a 33-17 lead in the opening quarter, matching their largest lead of the season after the first quarter.

Andre Iguodala‘s 20-foot fadeaway jumper off one leg in the final seconds kept the Warriors from matching a season-low for points in the opening period.

Iguodala finished with 14 points.

Golden State rallied from that horrendous start, overcoming a 22-point deficit in the first quarter to take its first lead at 59-57 on Thompson’s 3-pointer 1:20 into the second half.

The Warriors outscored the Spurs 93-65 after the first quarter.

Golden State finished 13 for 26 on 3-pointers after shooting 2 of 5 on 3-pointers in the first quarter. San Antonio had 14 turnovers in the final three quarters.

Warriors forward David West, who was met with a chorus of boos upon entering the game, finished with 15 points. West signed with Golden State in the offseason after playing for San Antonio last season on a discounted contract.

Manu Ginobili had 18 points for San Antonio, and LaMarcus Aldridge added 17.

TIP-INS

Warriors: Golden State forward Kevin Durant worked out on the court before the game, but remains sidelined by an injured left knee. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said there is no update on a possible return, but is encouraged that Durant is moving well and progressing. Durant played a “hard” 1-on-1 against Golden State assistant coach Willie Green earlier in the day. “Kevin got him pretty good,” Kerr said. “It’s a good sign. If Willie had beaten him, I would have been worried.” … Curry has 289 3-pointers this season, second-most in league history, surpassing the 286 he made in 2015. Curry set the league record with 402 3s last season. … Golden State has seven winning streaks of at least seven games in three seasons under Kerr.

Spurs: Ginobili has played 987 regular-season games in his career, tying Hall of Famer David Robinson for third all-time in franchise history behind Tony Parker (1,136) and Tim Duncan (1,392). … PG Patty Mills has 582 career 3-pointers, one more than Hall of Famer Michael Jordan. … San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said rookie Dejounte Murray is progressing slowly, but remains out with a left groin injury. … San Antonio has eight games remaining, including four at home. … The Spurs are 106-57 overall against the Warriors.

 

Grizzlies beat slumping Pacers, who fall into tie for final playoff spot

AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Mike Conley matched his career high with seven 3-pointers on his way to 36 points, helping the Memphis Grizzlies rout the Indiana Pacers 110-97 on Wednesday night.

Vince Carter had 21 points and eight rebounds, and Zach Randolph finished with 17 points as Memphis snapped a four-game losing streak. Conley went 13 for 21 from the field.

Paul George led the Pacers with 22 points, Aaron Brooks, who provided an early spark from outside the arc, had 18 points, and Thaddeus Young finished with 16.

Indiana lost for the fourth time in five games.

Memphis played without All-Star center Marc Gasol, who missed his third straight game with a left foot strain. But Conley helped the Grizzlies get off the fast start, and Pacers were never able to catch up.

Memphis led by as many as 22 in the second quarter and carried a 72-53 advantage into the break. Conley scored 22 points in the first half, and the Grizzlies went 10 for 17 from beyond the arc in the first two periods.

Brooks made four 3-pointers and scored 14 in the first half for Indiana.

The Grizzlies led 96-79 after three, and the sliding Pacers never threatened in the fourth.

Indiana (37-38) dropped into a tie with Miami for the last spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Both are two games behind Milwaukee and Atlanta.

The Heat, Bucks and Hawks all won Wednesday night.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Brooks made a 3-pointer in the first quarter to reach 800 for his career. … Indiana dropped to 0-8 in road games on the second night of a back-to-back.

Grizzlies: JaMychal Green was out with left shoulder soreness. That caused Memphis to use its 22nd different starting lineup this season. … Memphis scored 38 points in the first quarter, matching its highest point total for any quarter this season. … Memphis has made at least 10 3-pointers in 36 games. … In the third quarter, Carter passed Ray Allen (24,505) for 22nd in NBA history for career points scored. … Reserve guard Andrew Harrison left in the third quarter with a right ankle injury.

PACERS HOMECOMINGS

Pacers forward Thaddeus Young played high school basketball in Memphis and still lives there. Pacers guard Monta Ellis has a home in the Eads community east of Memphis.

HOME STRETCH

Memphis (41-34), which sits seventh in the Western Conference playoff race, has a beneficial schedule down the stretch. Of its seven remaining games, five are at home, and five are against teams with losing records.

UP NEXT

Pacers: Visit Toronto on Friday.

Grizzlies: Host the Dallas Mavericks on Friday.