NBA Playoff Preview: Charlotte Bobcats vs. Miami Heat

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

Charlotte Bobcats: 43-39 (7 seed)
Miami Heat: 54-28 (2 seed)

KEY INJURIES

None.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possessions)

Charlotte Bobcats: 101.2 (24th), Defense 101.2 (6th in the NBA)

Miami Heat: Offense 109 (2nd in the NBA), Defense 102.9 (11th in the NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1. Al Jefferson:ย The Bobcats’ big free agent signing last summer is the reason the team finds itself in the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and just the second time since the franchise moved to Charlotte in 2004. Jefferson has been the anchor offensively, averaging 21.8 points and hauling down 10.8 rebounds per game. And that’s going to be a problem for Miami, considering that defending elite post players is where the team struggles most defensively. Jefferson will need to increase his output against the Heat’s soft front line defense, or at the very least, cause double teams defensively that open up shots for his teammates.

2. Healthy Heat: Miami played too many games this season at less than full strength, with players being shuffled in and out of the lineup to compensate over the long, 82-game grind of the regular season. But all 15 players practiced in advance of the first round matchup, and you can bet that Greg Oden will get some run defensively trying to slow Jefferson. Having Dwyane Wade available for the postseason push will obviously be a boost as well, but for Miami the goal here is to find some chemistry with its best players, and form a playoff rotation moving forward that it can rely on as the team moves deeper into the postseason.

3. How quickly does Miami flip the switch? It’s been a long regular season for the Heat, but now that the playoffs are here, it should theoretically be go time. No team has made it to the Finals four straight seasons in almost 30 years, and there’s a reason for that. For Miami to become the first, it will need to get to the more meaningful matchups as quickly as possible, while exerting the minimum amount of energy to do so. This Heat team hasn’t historically swept its playoff opponents, but if it can dispatch the Bobcats in four straight, it may give us an indication of juts how ready they are to begin their title defense.

PREDICTION

It really comes down to whether or not the combination of the Bobcats solid defense and Al Jefferson’s inside presence can combine to give the Heat fits for one or two games. It would take an extremely strange set of circumstances for Charlotte to earn four victories, and we’ll go with the more likely scenario that they manage to squeak out one instead.

Heat in 5.

Team USA has sing-along on plane leaving Chicago. Well, except for ‘Melo.

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 26:  Carmelo Anthony #15 of the United States Men's National Team looks on during player intro duction prior to playing the China Men's National Team in a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Team USA had their “Tiny Dancer” moment.

Like “Stillwater” in Almost Famous, Team USA’s Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green and Kyrie Irving were leading a sing-along of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” on the team plane out of Chicago to Houston for the USA’s final exhibition game. Hat tip Alysha Tsuji who pulled the snapchats.

Everyone was loving it… except for Carmelo Anthony, according to DeMar DeRozan.

Melo ain't having it…๐Ÿ˜‚

A video posted by DeMar DeRozan (@demar_derozan) on

Watch Kyle Lowry’s tip-pass alley-oop to Jimmy Butler in USA win

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There were a lot of ugly things for Team USA in its exhibition win over Venezuela โ€” the 4-of-25 shooting from three comes to mind. There was more, it was not a strong offensive performance from Team USA.

But like usual, we can overwhelm teams with athleticism, and that means wins and highlights. Like Kyle Lowry‘s tip-pass alley-oop to Jimmy Butler.

Or DeMar DeRozan‘s late-game windmill dunk.

Kyrie Irving helps USA to ugly 80-45 win over Venezuela

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 26:  Kyrie Irving #10 of the United States Men's National Team looks to make a move with the ball against the China Men's National Team during the first half of a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO (AP) โ€” Kyrie Irving scored 13 points, DeMarcus Cousins powered a dominant performance in the paint, and the United States pulled away from Venezuela for an ugly 80-45 exhibition victory Friday night.

Coming off three straight flashy victories in Las Vegas and California, the United States shot 42.4 percent from the field and committed 13 turnovers in by far its worst offensive performance of its five-city tour in preparation for next week’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics. But the Americans used their superior athleticism to limit Venezuela to 24 percent shooting and owned the interior with a 54-29 rebounding advantage.

Returning to Chicago for the first time with the U.S. national team, Bulls star Jimmy Butler was cheered every time he was announced at the United Center. He had four points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes in his first start with Team USA.

Butler had one of the few electric plays for the U.S. when he ran out on the break and dunked Kyle Lowry‘s tip pass in the fourth quarter. DeAndre Jordan also had a vicious dunk off a lob from Kevin Durant, and DeMar DeRozan drew chants of “USA! USA!” with a windmill jam in the final minutes.

Klay Thompson also scored 13 points, and Cousins finished with seven points and 12 rebounds. Durant had nine points of 3-of-9 shooting.

John Cox scored 14 points for Venezuela, which will play the U.S. again on Aug. 8 in the Olympics.

Irving and company were greeted with a round of hearty cheers when they came out for pregame warmups. Fans lined the side of the court where the Americans had their layup line, and Anthony and Durant posed for pictures with a couple of eager boys.

Before Butler’s introduction drew the most applause of the night, former Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau received a thunderous ovation when he was announced with the U.S. coaching staff. Thibodeau took a year off after he was fired by the Bulls in May 2015, and then was hired as Minnesota’s coach and president of basketball operations in April.

The star power also extended to the sideline near the U.S. bench, where former Olympians Scottie Pippen and Dwyane Wade watched the action attentively. Wade was joined by his wife, actress Gabriel Union, hours after he held his introductory press conference for his new contract with his hometown Bulls.

Pippen played on the 1992 Dream Team that rolled to gold in Barcelona, and also helped the U.S. win gold in 1996. Wade was on the Americans’ gold medal-winning teams at each of the last two Olympics.

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

Monty Williams is back coaching with Team USA, ready to get back on NBA sidelines

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 18:  Draymond Green #14 of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team drives against assistant coach Monty Williams of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 18, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Watching Monty Williams back on the court at the USA basketball camp/practices in Las Vegas, you could see he was at home. He’s easily the best 44-year-old defender on the planet โ€” he went toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, and the rest, was physical, and made them work for buckets. Then he’d instruct. He’s just a natural.

Back in February, Williams’ wife was killed in an auto accident. It devastated the devout family man, in ways it’s hard for us to understand who have never experienced it. He walked away from coaching the rest of the NBA season with the Thunder, and nobody questioned it for a second.

Now, after getting his feet wet with Team USA (where he is an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski), he told Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman he is ready to get back on the sidelines.

“I wouldn’t even think that if I didn’t know, one, my wife would want me to; my kids talk about it all the time. And there have been some things that have happened in my life lately that have allowed me to get that back. I’m so juiced up and ready to get back into it again.”

He is one of the better respected assistant coaches in the league, and a guy who will get another shot at a top spot someday. Soon. Can’t wait to see him back on the sidelines.