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.

DeMarcus Cousins ejected after elbowing Russell Westbrook in head

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DeMarcus Cousins‘ history of flagrant fouls certainly didn’t help him here, but if anyone elbows a guy in the head, he’s going to get tossed.

And that’s what Cousins did here.

Midway through the third quarter in New Orleans, Cousins blocked a putback attempt by Russell Westbrook, then grabbed the rebound. Westbrook tried to reach in across Cousins’ body for the steal, and Cousins cleared out space with his elbow — right to Westbrook’s head. Cousins walked around saying “no, no, no” afterward, and he likely thinks the officials had it out for him here because he was just getting a guy off him, but we go back to the original point — elbow a guy in the head, get tossed. The league is cracking down on blows above the neck. Westbrook did not leave the game.

The Pelicans went on to come from 19 down to win the game 114-107, behind 36 points and 15 boards from Anthony Davis.

Damn, Paul George with the in-game bounce pass alley-oop to Jerami Grant

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The game has been close (as of midway through the third quarter), but that didn’t stop Oklahoma City from putting on a show in New Orleans.

Paul George had the ball on a 2-on-0 fast break and decided to throw the playground bounce-pass alley-oop, which Jerami Grant got up and finished with authority. This could be one of the dunks of the year.

We’re going to see that highlight for a while.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.

Celtics look to push win streak to 16 vs. Mavs

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DALLAS (AP) — The Boston Celtics aren’t yet halfway to the NBA record for consecutive victories, a mark the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers still hold, but at 15 in a row, they are in rare territory.

Since 1946-47, there have only been 35 instances of a 15-game win streak or longer. And of all the legendary Celtics teams, this squad already holds the franchise’s fifth-longest win streak. A victory Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks, who are an NBA-worst 3-14 overall and 2-8 at American Airlines Center, would tie the 1964-65 Boston team’s 16-game win streak.

If the Celtics (15-2) get the win, they would climb closer to the 1959-60 team’s 18-game win streak, and then comes the club mark of 19 in a row accomplished by the 2008-09 team.

This version of the Celtics has to be considered the most unexpected to string together so many wins. The team has a slew of new players, starting with guard Kyrie Irving, and Boston lost another prized newcomer, forward Gordon Hayward, in the season opener.

After starting 0-2, Boston hasn’t lost. Yet, it’s not exactly as if the Celtics are steamrolling the league. For the Mavericks, who are coming off snapping the Milwaukee Bucks’ four-game win streak Saturday, the fact that Boston has actually had to rally to get a handful of its wins must be seen as an opportunity to steal a decision.

In fact, four of the Celtics’ victories during the streak have come after Boston trailed by 16 points, including a 110-109 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

“Most of us have never been on a winning streak like this,” Irving said following the win over Atlanta. “I don’t know if we even know how to pay attention to all the hoopla that goes on in terms of the excitement of it. I just think that every single game we take it as a challenge.”

Irving has been accepting that challenge with tremendous success after asking to be traded away from Cleveland, where he won one title with LeBron James and lost twice in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors.

He closed out those same Warriors last week, scoring 11 of the last 15 points in the final 4:21. The clutch play has Irving already being talked about as an MVP candidate.

“He’s so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Globe about Irving. “Maybe it’s finding a matchup. Maybe it’s creating a two-man game with Al (Horford).”

Irving will be a major test for Mavs rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who has displayed some tremendous flashes while also showing he is a green 19-year-old with one season of college ball under his belt.

Dallas, one of the league’s lowest-scoring offensive teams, is relying heavily on Smith and Harrison Barnes to carry the load. Dirk Nowitzki, 39, has dropped off significantly, averaging just 10.3 points a game, his lowest output since his rookie season in 1998-99.

Unlike the Celtics, Dallas has lost its share of games by being unable to close out games late. On Saturday, the Mavericks won a rare game going away, blitzing the Bucks with a franchise-tying 19 3-pointers. Guard Wesley Matthews said he thinks all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The history-chasing Celtics will put that claim to test.

“We can actually see everything that we’ve been trying to do come together, and hopefully that just carries the momentum into the off day where everybody’s feeling good,” Matthews said after Dallas’ victory. “We’ve got another tough battle Monday against Boston, who is the hottest team in the league right now, but it’s another opportunity for us.”