NBA Playoff Preview: Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Indiana Pacers: 56-26

Miami Heat: 54-28

KEY INJURIES

Indiana Pacers: Andrew Bynum (broken)

Miami Heat: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Indiana Pacers: Offense 101.5 (22nd in the NBA), Defense 96.7 (1st in the NBA)

Miami Heat: Offense: 109.0 (2nd in the NBA). Defense: 102.9 (11th in the NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How will the Heat match up?

The Pacers – admirably or stubbornly – do what they do. They’re going to be big, and they’re going to be methodical.

The Heat are much more flexible, and it will be on Erik Spoelstra to determine how he wants to structure lineups around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Maybe Miami goes small with Bosh at center and a stretch four – LeBron, Rashard Lewis or Shane Battier – to space the floor. That would ensure Roy Hibbert defends outside the paint, removing the anchor of Indiana’s defense and removing Hibbert from his comfort zone. However, it would also leave the Heat vulnerable defensively to Hibbert’s post-ups and make Miami pick its poison on whether LeBron doesn’t guard Paul George or David West. Any sign Hibbert has lost confidence to the point he can’t score regardless, this should become the preferred strategy.

On the other hand, the Heat could also go big to counter Hibbert and West. Greg Oden was signed to match up with Hibbert, though that went disastrously in their regular-season meeting meeting. Small sample? Yes. Worth another shot? Maybe. Probably, even. Chris Andersen is Miami’s most reliable big man outside of Bosh, and he’ll definitely play a major role in this series. But he’s 35 and hasn’t played 30 minutes in regulation in four years. There’s only so much he can do.

Udonis Haslem could split the difference.

Haslem is an extremely physical player who, despite being just 6-foot-8, can work on Hibbert. He also has a nice mid-range jumper to pull Hibbert from the paint, though not all the way to the 3-point arc. Haslem started in the first round against the Bobcats, and then he played just three minutes against the small-ball Nets.

Spoelstra is more than willing to change his rotations based on opponent.

It’s not just who plays, but when they play – especially Bosh. Bosh is a solid defender in the right matchups, but Hibbert – and, to a lesser extent, West – can beat him up inside. Ideally for the Heat, they won’t waste all Bosh’s energy in a losing defensive match up only have him spent offensively.

2) How much does homecourt advantage matter?

All season, the Pacers made their goal securing the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage. They’re so serious about beating Miami, they were looking for an edge since day one after losing a road Game 7 to the Heat last year.

Miami doesn’t take the regular season as seriously – see its record vs. Brooklyn in the regular season and postseason – and Indiana got the top seed it desired despite a late-season slide.

So, will all that work pay off?

In postseason series during the last four years, the Pacers are 4-0 with homecourt advantage and 1-3 without it. In individual games against Miami during the same span, the Pacers are 8-5 at home and 3-11 on the road.

It seems this should be important to Indiana.

Then again, the Pacers are 5-6 in their last 11 home games. Plus, in the Big Three era, the Heat are 11-1 with homecourt advantage and 2-0 without it in a series. They can win anywhere.

Maybe it will matter most as a mental reminder to the Pacers about why they worked so hard in the first place, potentially helping them summon some of the confidence they showed regularly early in the season and appears only occasionally now.

3) How hungry are the Pacers?

In 2012, Miami eliminated Indiana in six games in the second round. In 2013, Miami eliminated Indiana in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Pacers are chomping at the bit, getting closer and closer to toppling the aging Heat.

From Miami’s perspective, keeping a hungry team at bay is hard. Yes, teams should – and generally do – give maximum effort at this point in the season. But when you’re coming from the position of power, there’s a lower threshold of energy you can reach once you get on the court.

The sensation of being corned and the desire to overcome a challenge are not easy to fake. The Pacers have it. The Heat have to fake it.

Since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984, teams have met in three consecutive postseasons 22 times. The same team has won all three matchups just eight times. Five of those eight had Phil Jackson – the ultimate playoff motivator – as coach.

That leaves just three teams in 30 years that have beaten the same playoff opponent in three consecutive years without Jackson.

Could the Heat make it No. 4? They have a member of the one of the previous three – LeBron, whose Cavaliers beat the Wizards in 2006, 2007 and 2008. As usual, Miami’s demeanor will be defined by its megastar.

PREDICTION

The Pacers’ late collapse was very real, but also probably overblown. A good, but not elite, team is left in the rubble. It’s also a team designed specifically to match up with the Heat, Indiana could definitely overcome the quality gap between the teams.

The biggest potential variable is one that hopefully won’t be an issue at all – Wade’s health. If he goes down, this series loses a lot of prestige. He looks fine, but his knees are a constant concern and will be for the rest of his career. As long as Wade avoids injury, the Heat will just be too much.

Heat in 6

Russell Westbrook hits game-winning 3-pointer to beat Kings (VIDEO)

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Welp, looks like Russell Westbrook is re-energized after All-Star Weekend.

As the first night of games after the break got underway on Thursday night, it was Westbrook who gave us a jolt as he helped the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Sacramento Kings on the road.

With just a second to go, Sacramento’s Justin Jackson had tied the game up at 107-107. This came after Vince Carter pulled up confidently from nearly 30 feet out, missing badly. Sacramento missed another follow, and then Jackson put home the final try.

Via Twitter:

That left the Thunder to advance the ball with just one second left.

Oklahoma City ran a simple play with Westbrook running near-to-far across the arc from the inbounder, eventually settling at the top of the 3-point line.

He let it fly, and that allowed OKC to come away with a win, 110-107.

Bulls find way to lose despite being up by 5 with 35 seconds left

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CHICAGO (AP) Ben Simmons scored 32 points, making two free throws with 5.6 seconds left to complete Philadelphia’s rally from five points down in the final minute, and the 76ers beat the Chicago Bulls 116-115 on Thursday night.

Joel Embiid had 30 points and 13 rebounds, and Simmons added 11 assists and seven rebounds as Philadelphia won its sixth straight and snapped a four-game road losing streak.

Bobby Portis had a career-high 38 points and Zach LaVine added 23 for the Bulls, who were 18 for 34 on 3-pointers.

Chicago had a 115-114 lead and the ball with 8 seconds to go before Embiid deflected an inbounds pass to create a turnover. Simmons came up with the ball near half court and was fouled by Denzel Valentine. He made both free throws.

Portis had a chance for a game winner, but his short attempt – with Embiid defending – just missed.

The 76ers raced to a 25-7 lead midway through the first quarter before Portis got hot and Chicago started making 3s.

Philadelphia’s lead was down to 33-29 at the end of the quarter and the Bulls busted out for 40 points in the second to take a 69-67 halftime lead. Chicago was 9 of 12 on 3-pointers in the quarter, including 4 for 5 by Portis.

The 76ers were up by five early in the fourth before Portis scored six straight points – on a 3-pointer and a three-point play – to put the Bulls on top 101-100. A few minutes later, Portis dunked over Embiid to stretch the lead to 111-106 with just over four minutes to play.

LaVine hit a 3-pointer to make it 115-110 with 1:02 left.

TIP INS

76ers: C Embiid has nine straight double-doubles . Simmons has six triple-doubles this season, which ties him with Wilt Chamberlain (three times) and Billy Cunningham for most in a season in team history.

Bulls: To look at some younger players during the final 25 games, C Robin Lopez and G/F Justin Holiday were removed from the starting lineup. Both were inactive on Thursday as Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba (21 points) started; Also, Cameron Payne – who played in his first game on Thursday – will replace Jerian Grant as the backup point guard.

“It really is hard,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s hard for Robin, it’s hard for Justin and it’s hard for Jerian, who’s probably making as big a sacrifice as anybody.”

UP NEXT

76ers: Host Orlando on Saturday.

Bulls: Visit Minnesota Saturday night.

Kelly Oubre gets caught untying Rodney Hood’s shoes (VIDEO)

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The NBA seems to have a secret obsession with tying and untying shoes mid-game. J.R. Smith once got a warning for doing as much, finally earning himself a $50,000 fine after doing it multiple times. Likewise, other players like Rajon Rondo and Danny Green have pulled down the shorts of opponents while the clock was rolling.

Perhaps that emboldened Washington Wizards forward Kelly Oubre on Thursday night as his team took on the Cleveland Cavaliers in Ohio.

During the game, game operations crew at The Q ran a video on the big board that appeared to show Oubre untying the shoes of Cavaliers guard Rodney Hood.

Via Twitter:

These guys have so much to think about during a game I’m honestly impressed that they have the time to remember to do petty stuff like this.

I suppose it worked?

Oubre had 17 points off the bench, adding five rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Hood had just eight points in 27 minutes on the floor.

The Wizards beat the Cavaliers on the road, 110-103.

Report: Warriors will spend trip to D.C. with kids, not Trump

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Donald Trump decided to disinvite the Golden State Warriors to the White House despite team winning the 2017 NBA Championship. Many members of the Warriors have been critical of Trump during his short tenure in Washington D.C., which the former mail order steak salesman has not taken lightly.

With no invitation to the White House on hand, and considerable doubts that the team would go even if the opportunity resurfaced, the Warriors have decided to take a private tour around the nation’s capital instead.

According to a report from ESPN, the team will take a trip with just players, coaches, and some kids to a discreet location as part of a tour.

Via ESPN:

Head coach Steve Kerr left it up to the players to determine how they wanted to spend their time, and the players selected a venue in which local kids would join them. It will be closed off to the media, sources said.

The players wanted the outing to be a personal, intimate experience.

“It’s their championship. They got disinvited to the White House, so it’s up to them what they wanted to do. So they made their plans,” Kerr told ESPN. “I want the players to have a good day and to do something positive and to enjoy what they’re doing.”

Golden State will be in D.C. to play the Washington Wizards on February 28. They will reportedly take their trip — sure to be fun for the kids — the day before.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder if an NBA team will ever visit the White House while Trump lives there. People from LeBron James to Gregg Popovich have spoken out about their disagreements with him, and the Warriors were pretty vocal about not attending a ceremony with Trump.