Nets notch fifth straight win over frustrated LeBron, banged up Heat

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NEW YORK — LeBron James fouled out of a game for just the sixth time in his career on Friday, and with the Heat entering the game in Brooklyn already down three of their starters, losing him for the second overtime session proved to be too much.

Behind big games from Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston, along with some gritty and physical team defense, the Nets remained undefeated in 2014 by notching their fifth straight victory, a thrilling double-overtime triumph against a depleted Miami team and an admittedly frustrated James.

LeBron seemed irritable from the jump in this one, partly because he would have to do so much to carry his team on the second night of a back-to-back without Dwyane Wade, and partly because of the way the Nets defended him. Brooklyn was allowed to play physically against James, and as often happens to the more aggressive team, the Nets got the benefit of the doubt on many calls that could have gone either way.

“I thought I was a little frustrated in the first half, and I apologized to my teammates at halftime, telling them that my frustration and my body language was all wrong,” James said afterward. “I changed that in the second half, tried to be aggressive and put us in a position to win, but just came up short.”

It was a lackluster effort from the Heat through three quarters, who simply didn’t have the energy level to match what the Nets brought, and have been bringing during this recent stretch of winning basketball. But a play that occurred early in the fourth quarter helped to change that.

The Heat entered the fourth trailing by 12, but had already been chipping away at that deficit in the period’s first three minutes, and cut it to five by the time Mirza Teletovic grabbed LeBron around the neck to stop him on a fast break, right after James used a forearm to remove Andrei Kirilenko from his path to the basket.

LeBron was whistled for the offensive foul, and Teletovic received a flagrant one for his actions.

“He went around the neck, that was my take,” James said. “It’s not a basketball play.”

LeBron also accused Kirilenko of exaggerating contact that occurred on more than one occasion.

“I thought Kirilenko flopped a few times,” he said. “To be honest about it, he flopped a few times and he got the call. The last one that fouled me out, that could’ve been a charge for sure. But he kind of put his hands on me as I drove, and that got him off balance, and he was able to get the call. But Kirilenko definitely flopped on me a couple of times and got the call.”

Livingston was the one who took that last charge on James, but the point remains. And with James forced to watch the entire second overtime from the bench, his team was outscored for all but 16 seconds of the final five minutes, before a meaningless layup from Ray Allen was made to end the scoring for the night.

The Nets are coming together as a team, and the effort and energy they’ve been bringing on the defensive end has been the difference. Paul Pierce said as much afterward, pointing to the way his team defended James on the night as the primary example.

“We did a great job on him,” Pierce said. “The good thing I thought we did today, we attacked him too. You never see LeBron foul out. I can’t even remember. The last time I’ve seen him foul out was in a Boston playoff game actually, and that was like three or four years ago. When you get a player that caliber out of the game who hardly ever fouls out, it’s a tribute to what we’re doing on that end too. We’re attacking him as well as playing good defense on him.”

Pierce wasn’t entirely correct, as James fouled out of a playoff game as recently as last season against the Pacers in the Conference Finals. But his remark shows just how rare the occurrence is.

For Miami, these are the dog days of the regular season, even though we’re not even at the halfway point just yet. The injuries and the schedule caught up with them these past two nights, which ended a rough span of six games in nine days that left the Heat with a record of just 3-3 during that stretch.

The Heat have four days off until their next contest, and the break couldn’t come at a better time as far as James is concerned.

“We’re banged up right now as a team,” he said. “We’re not an excuse team, but right now, we have three starters that didn’t play. Even though we’ve got a lot of depth, it’s hard to make up for three starters being out. So we could all use this break for sure.”

Anthony Davis rattles rim with dunk on Juan Hernangomez (video)

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A sweet-shooting stretch four, Juan Hernangomez has a bright future in the NBA.

It’s not because of his rim protection.

Video Breakdown: How to ICE the pick-and-roll on defense

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NBA teams can defend the pick-and-roll game in many ways, but one of the most common is called ICE. This method sometimes goes by the name of Blue, Down, or Black, and it is ubiquitous as way to defend in the most popular offensive action in the modern NBA.

The basic idea is that the screener’s defender — usually a big man — stays parallel to the baseline and below the screen itself. The goal is to force the dribbler east to west, and to defend the paint while allowing for a lower percentage long range jumper.

The dribbler’s defender — usually a guard or a wing — fights over the top and pressures the shooter from above, ensuring that he cannot take a 3-pointer.

ICE pick-and-roll coverage has two main goals:

  1. Stop the ball handler and force the offense to move to another action.
  2. Stop a shot in the paint or at the 3-point line.

This varies from other kinds of pick-and-roll defense, including the hedge, the show, and the blitz. We’ll cover those in future videos, but you can get a little taste of them in a defensive glossary video I’ve done previously.

Meanwhile, get the full breakdown on ICE pick-and-roll coverage with the video breakdown above.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.