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.

Report: Hawks’ Paul Millsap to opt out, explore free agency

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Before the season, Paul Millsap said he was undecided on opting out.

We’re one step closer to completely dismissing that shaky pretense.

Adam Schefter of ESPN:

There’s no question Millsap can earn more than his $21,472,407 option-year salary. He might even earn the max, which projects to be north of $36 million. The 32-year-old will also have a chance to lock into a long-term contract.

Opting out is an easy call.

The only question is whether anyone will offer a max starting salary and max years.

That’s a risky proposition for a player his age, but for a team ready to win now, the short-term gains might outweigh the long-term risk. (And it’s not really a “risk.” Millsap is extremely likely to be overpaid by the end of a full max deal.) Millsap is an elite defender with an efficient offensive game.

How much would the Hawks pay? They called re-signing Millsap their priority, but they’ve also sent mixed messages about their desire to win now (signing Dwight Howard, keeping Millsap past the trade deadline) vs. rebuilding (trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver).

And it’s not unilaterally up to Atlanta. Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent, and if he plans to explore the market, you never know what he’ll find.

Russell Westbrook posts 35th triple-double; Thunder roll past 76ers

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Add another first for Russell Westbrook – a triple-double without missing a shot.

Westbrook recorded his 35th triple-double of the season with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder cruised to a 122-97 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.

He did so while making all six of his field-goal attempts and all six of his free throws. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no NBA player previously has had a triple-double without missing a shot attempt or free throw.

“It’s amazing, especially for a point guard, because he’s shooting threes, twos, inside, outside,” said Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter of his teammate’s perfect shooting. “For a point guard, he’s doing an unbelievable job, playing his game, having fun.”

Westbrook’s perfect shooting night could partially be attributed to a conscious decision to not shoot a 3-pointer in a game for the first time since March 14, 2016. He said he wasn’t aware during the game that he hadn’t missed a shot.

“I was just trying to play, trying to take my time,” Westbrook said. “I’ve been watching some film, trying to pick my spots better. I found ways to continue to get my teammates involved throughout the game and it just happened that way.

The Thunder have won 16 straight games against Philadelphia, a run that stretches to the 2008-09 season, the franchise’s first in Oklahoma City. That dominance was perhaps most evident in the final rebounding numbers on Wednesday: Oklahoma City 54, Philadelphia 25.

“It’s a fantastic example for our young guys on the physicality of playoff-type teams,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “That side of it to me stood out more than it has in a long time. … You look at the discrepancy on the boards, the rebounding differential, and it felt that.

“It’s a reminder. If you want to play late in April, if you want to play in May, maybe June one day, that’s the physicality that the playoffs bring.”

Nik Stauskas led the 76ers with 20 points, reaching the 20-point mark in consecutive games for the first time in his career.

After 11 lead changes in the opening minutes, the Thunder seized control with a 14-3 run near the end of the first quarter that put them ahead 29-22. Oklahoma City pushed its lead to 14 at one point before settling for a 63-50 halftime lead.

Philadelphia scored to start the third quarter, then the Thunder scored the next 15 points to build a 26-point lead and the triple-double watch intensified. Westbrook’s 10th assist came when Taj Gibson rattled in a 15-foot jumper at the 9:10 mark and the 10th rebound came with 7:08 left in the quarter.

It was the 13th time this season, and the 27th time in his career, Westbrook clinched a triple-double in the third quarter. He left the game with 2:39 left in the quarter and didn’t return.

Westbrook has recorded five triple-doubles against Philadelphia, his highest total against any NBA team. He needs six triple-doubles in Oklahoma City’s final 11 games to tie Oscar Robertson’s single-season record, set during the 1961-62 season.

Kanter posted his 17th double-double of the season for the Thunder with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Victor Oladipo (18 points) and Doug McDermott (13 points) also reached double figures for the Thunder.

TIP-INS:

76ers: Jahlil Okafor, who missed Monday’s game at Orlando with right knee soreness, started against the Thunder and played 17 minutes, scoring six points. … Dario Saric scored 12 points, extending his double-figure scoring streak to 21 games, the longest by a rookie this season. … Stauskas matched his season high with five 3-pointers, going 5-of-5 from behind the arc in the first half.

Thunder: With its 41st win of the season, Oklahoma City is assured of a .500 or better record for the eighth straight season. Only two other teams, the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, have as long a streak. … Westbrook has 72 triple-doubles and needs six more to tie Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the NBA all-time list.

SURGERY FOR EMBIID

The 76ers said before the game that rookie center Joel Embiid will undergo surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee. Team spokesman Mike Preston said the 7-footer, who has been plagued with injuries during his professional career, will have the surgery “in the coming days.”

Brown said “there has been tremendous due diligence … and research” about the decision concerning surgery and that Embiid “took an active role” in making the decision. Brown wouldn’t say if he thought Embiid would return by the start of next season: “That’s stuff we will talk more about and learn more about.”

Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with a foot injury. He played in 31 games this season, averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game but hasn’t played since Jan. 27, when he scored 32 points in a loss to the Houston Rockets.

QUOTABLE:

Philadelphia guard T.J. McConnell on guarding Westbrook: “It’s not a one-person job. It’s an entire team.”

 

Wilson Chandler leads Nuggets past Cavaliers, 126-113

Associated Press
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DENVER (AP) — Wilson Chandler scored 18 points in his return from a four-game absence with a pulled groin and provided stellar defense on LeBron James in the Denver Nuggets’ 126-113 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night.

The Nuggets bounced back from consecutive heartbreaking last-second losses to Houston with a signature win that increased their lead to 1 1/2 games over idle Portland in the race for the final playoff spot in the West.

Will Barton scored 20 points, Kenneth Faried added 17 and Jamal Murray had 15 off the bench for Denver, which also got 21 points from Gary Harris and 16 from Nikola Jokic.

Kyrie Irving led the Cavs with 33 points but James had just 18 and the two stars sat out much of the fourth quarter with Cleveland trailing by double digits.

The Nuggets took a 101-90 lead into the fourth quarter after an entertaining third quarter that included a James-fueled 15-4 run by the Cavs and a 15-3 response by the Nuggets that included nine points from Faried.

But the arena-rocking basket in the Nuggets’ big run came not from Faried but from Jokic, who backed down James during a particularly physical possession. His basket gave Denver a 99-83 lead.

Denver grabbed momentum midway through the second quarter when Murray swished three 3-pointers that gave the Nuggets a 50-40 lead.

The Nuggets doubled that cushion thanks in part to Richard Jefferson‘s face slap of Juancho Hernangomez for a flagrant foul. Hernangomez sank both free throws and then Barton swished a 3-pointer on the inbounds, capping a 7-0 spurt that gave Denver a 61-47 lead. The Nuggets pushed their lead to 69-49.

Chandler showed fresh legs and little rust in his return to action.

“He hasn’t played in 10, 11 days,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before tip-off. “At least going into the game I feel that we have a body that can match up with LeBron’s physicality. He’s just such a versatile defender for us, so that’s going to be great to have him back.”

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: The Cavs, who fell to 18-17 on the road, had limited the Nuggets to an average of 99 points in their last three trips to the Pepsi Center, all wins. … The teams combined to miss just one free throw in the first half – by James. … Irving, who had 19 points in the first half, topped 20 points for the 19th consecutive game, extending the longest current streak in the NBA.

Nuggets: Danilo Gallinari missed his fourth straight game with a bone bruise on his left knee. … Denver already had 120 points by the time Deron Williams’ three-point play put the Cavs in triple digits at the 3:54 mark of the fourth quarter.

 

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Triangle offense will be in Knicks training camp next fall. Jeff Hornacek not sure core players will be.

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The Knicks are a train wreck this season. A lot of that falls on Phil Jackson and Knicks management: They said they wanted to be a triangle team, then hired a coach in Jeff Hornacek that wanted to coach a more open system, Jackson and company filled the roster with older, stop-gap players — Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah — who don’t really fit what Hornacek wants to do or the triangle, and all season long they bounced between the emphasizing the triangle and emphasizing a more modern offense. It’s hard to see a coherent vision, and that’s at the heart of the reasons the Knicks are going to miss the playoffs again this season. The lack of one cohesive offensive plan hurt the team, coach Jeff Hornacek has said.

Next year’s vision appears to revolve around more triangle offense.

Kristaps Porzingis says he likes the offense, and he’s on his rookie contract, so he certainly will be back. But what about Rose? Carmelo Anthony? Hornacek didn’t sound so sure when asked by Marc Berman at the New York Post.

“There’s a lot of guys who do good things,’’ Hornacek said on whether he knows whom he wants to return. “We got to make sure whoever is on the team next year, we get guys who play as hard as they can every play. The defensive intensity obviously has to be picked up for guys next year. Scoring the basketball – we have the guys who can do that – but do we have the right fit who are running the system?

“If we can think with a fresh start of training camp, going to it right off the bat, if that helps us and Phil and Steve [Mills, the GM] think the same guys on the team can have a different outlook on it, they stay the same. If not, they’ll look at other guys.”

Reports are the Knicks are going to talk to Anthony and his agent after the season about finding a trade to another team that works for everyone (you know, the way Jackson should have handled it at the deadline rather than play mind games). Anthony is no fan of the triangle, a deal likely can be worked out with the Clippers, Cavaliers, or some other spot Anthony likes.

Rose is a free agent, the Knicks can just let him walk, and if they’re running the triangle they should let him. Rose is a pick-and-roll point guard who does not fit the system.

If the Knicks can find the right free agents to come in and run the triangle remains to be seen. Some veteran players may be interested, but plenty are turned off by the offense.