Heat start hot then hang on to beat Clippers

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This was a nationally televised against a top-four team in the West in the Clippers — these are the kind of games that shake the Heat out of their mid-season malaise.

And when the Heat play like they did early Wednesday night it is a beautiful thing.

Miami’s first quarter was as good as they have played all season — they pushed the pace, had fantastic ball movement that picked apart the Clippers defense, and started the game shooting 14-17 from field. LeBron James had five first quarter assists, Dwyane Wade had four, the Heat were getting points in the paint and knocking down jumpers. Miami was up 12 in the first quarter, by 19 at points in the second.

That proved to be enough, despite the ball movement fading away late. The Clippers mounted a furious fourth quarter comeback behind Blake Griffin and his 43 points on the night — Los Angeles whittled the lead down to two. Then it was a familiar story: Ray Allen drains a corner three and that proves to be the big play, the dagger.

Miami hung on to win 116-112 Wednesday night in Los Angeles in one of the more entertaining games of the season.

LeBron finished with 31 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds, leading six Heat players in double figures on the night. Miami played its game much of the night, sharing the ball, and they were out and running on the 20 Clipper turnovers. Live ball turnovers against the Heat become easy buckets and impressive dunks going the other way, and the Clippers did that too often. Of course, Los Angeles had plenty of dunks of its own — this team still puts on a show.

The Clippers want to be elite but once again inconsistent defense did them in — they allowed an offensive rating of 119 (points per 100 possessions) and they let the Heat shoot 52 percent on the night. As a team the Clippers have matured on that end, yet the trust on defense is not consistently where it needs to be, something Doc Rivers has admitted.

The Clippers stayed within striking distance because of a two-man show — Jamal Crawford and Blake Griffin either scored or assisted on 53 of the Clippers 55 first half points.

Still the Heat maintained a double-digit lead through the bulk of the third quarter and looked like they might coast in for the win. It wasn’t to be. The Clippers put together a 10-0 run in the fourth (Crawford was a big part of that, he finished with 31 points of the night).

As the score got tight the Heat’s ball movement died as well. Yet the Heat were still getting good looks with LeBron attacking — Miami started having the point guard come set the screen to force the Darren Collison to hedge out and LeBron exploited that badly (that is where the return of Chris Paul will change things).

The Clippers kept coming. Inside of a minute left in the game the Clippers got the Heat lead down to two points. Miami had the ball and good 20 seconds of a strong possession, but when Wade drove the lane Crawford watched the ball and lost sight of his man in the corner. His man was Ray Allen. You don’t want to lose Ray Allen, and he promptly buried a three that ended up being the dagger.

Don’t read too much into a February game where both teams were battling injuries (none as serious as CP3 being out), but it’s a good thing to see the Clippers show some fight like that — they may have grown with while their best player has been sidelined. That could benefit them once the playoffs start.

What this game can do is remind us just how good the Heat can be when they are on — and that this season they don’t hold that focus quite as long it seems.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.

Lonzo Ball, other top draft picks expected to skip NBA Combine

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The NBA Draft Combine invites started going out Saturday — about 60-70 players are expected to be invited to a gym in Chicago for a couple of days of measurements, interviews, and tests, with a little basketball thrown in. The idea is for teams to get an up-close look (and accurate measurements) with guys they are going to invest time and, in some cases, millions of dollars in over the next several years.

However, the guys at the top of the draft are not going to be in Chicago, as Shams Charania and Bobby Marks of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports noted.

This is the same as with the NFL combine, the top picks see only bad things that can happen by taking part, there’s no upside but their stock could fall, so they stay away.

That’s not about to change. Also, a lot of international players skip the combine. That opens up some slots for more fringe guys, players who may or may not get drafted in the second round, to come in and impress. (Check out Jonathan Givony’s Twitter timeline to get a sense of who got invited and who didn’t.)

Teams looking at drafting the top handful, the elite guys, have already had scouts watch every college and many high school games, not to mention seeing their AAU teams and catching them at things like the Nike Summit or Adidas Nations events. They’ve talked to the guy’s former coaches and others around him, they have a good sense of who he is and is not.

Well, as much as one can in any draft. It’s still a crap shoot. A player can have all the skills, all the physical gifts, be a good person, but what happens once they face real adversity? Or, have to deal with money and temptations? What would you have been like at age 20 with millions of dollars and all the hedonistic temptations of the NBA lifestyle thrown at you? Or, how do does a team know which young players with some very raw skills have the drive and passion for maximizing those talents? Predicting how a 19- or 20-year-old will mature is not an easy task.