Too much LeBron, Wade down stretch carries Heat past Pacers, even series

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For three quarters it looked like the Indiana Pacers were Born Ready.

But in crunch time Miami could answer with the best player on the planet — and much improved defense from Game 1.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade scored Miami’s final 15 points including during a 10-0 Heat run that started with just under five minutes left in the game, a stretch that provided the separation Miami needed to get an 87-83, grind-it-out win on the road.

That evens the series at 1-1 heading back to Game 3 in Miami Saturday night.

LeBron had an up-and down game and finished with 22 points, 12 in the fourth quarter. Wade was the key to the Heat offense in the first half then made a series of big shots, including some impressive floaters, as he had 10 in the fourth quarter and 23 for the game to lead the Heat.

But the offense wasn’t end of the court where Miami needed the biggest change after Game 1.

Miami came out with a much improved defensive effort in Game 2, particularly starting in the second quarter when they held Indiana to 6-of-21 shooting. In Game 1 Miami had little ball pressure and let the Pacers start their sets when and where they wanted, which was the first steps in a series of breakdowns. But in Game 2 Miami was pressuring the ball, forcing turnovers.

That defense was particularly evident in the fourth quarter when Miami pressured and Indiana shot just 7-of-19. As always the Heat’s offense feeds off their defense and Miami shot 58.8 percent in the final frame behind their stars.

“We had some defensive breakdowns that led to threes and we had some turnovers,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said in his post-game press conference broadcast on NBA TV.

Up until that point this game it felt like the kind of grinding, defensive, ugly playoff game that is right in the Pacers wheelhouse. It was close the whole way but it felt like Indy’s kind of game.

Lance Stephenson — nicknamed Born Ready — looked like a guy who is going to get paid as a free agent this summer just dominating for stretches, particularly in the third quarter. He was aggressive but not reckless and did a good job setting up teammates. The result was 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting plus 7 assists and 6 rebounds.

Paul George struggled. He was 1-of-11 to start the game and finished with 14 points on 16 shots. David West had 10 points on 16 shots. Part of that was good Miami defense, but some of it was just missed looks they normally hit.

Roy Hibbert had a strong game again for Indiana — 13 rebounds, 8 of them offensive, plus 12 points on 8 shots. He seems to be back on both ends, and with that the Pacers seem back in this series.

While Wade and LeBron deserve the praise, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made two key moves trusting his bench that paid off big and were key to the win.

One was putting Norris Cole on Stephenson, which hampered Stephenson on the pick-and-roll because Cole was quick enough to take away room. Stephenson was key for three quarters — he owned the third — but after the switch to have Cole on him Stephenson shot just 1-of-3 and was quiet down the stretch.

The other key was Spoelstra leaned heavily on Chris Anderson to play Roy Hibbert in big minutes. Anderson played 28 minutes total and almost the entire fourth quarter — he was the one defender who gave Hibbert trouble. Plus Anderson pulled down 13 rebounds. It was key.

Both teams can take a measure of confidence into Game 3.

Indiana is back and hanging with the champs — they lost by just four on a night where their All-Star wing Paul George was just ice cold (and David West wasn’t much better). Most nights they can force a game at this tempo, in this style, they will win. They have to feel they have a real shot here.

Miami got the split on the road and now is heading home. More importantly their defense was back and if it is back they can keep Indiana from scoring much easier than Indy can stop them. Plus, the Heat still have the best player in the series on their side.

After two games this feels like a series that is going to go on for a while.

Kevin Durant gets into Twitter debate with reporter over White House comments

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Kevin Durant became the latest Warrior — joining Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, that we know of — to say he would not visit President Donald Trump’s White House as NBA champion. Which is all kind of moot because it’s unlikely the White House invites them and outspoken Trump critic/Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his players any way. (The White House’s biggest concern should be that Kerr accepts the invitation and uses that platform to challenge the president’s policies and style in front of him.)

Durant’s comments led to plenty of talk on sports talk radio and around the sports world online about whether a player or team should decline an invitation from the president. It’s not a new debate, Tom Brady denied that politics is why he didn’t visit Barack Obama’s White House (although I’m not sure many believed him), but KD’s on a big stage now so it became a talking point.

Former ESPN reporter Britt McHenry questioned a player not visiting the White House, and Durant responded, leading to a little Twitter back-and-forth.

Durant had previously Tweeted in response “by doing the opposite, I am inspiring more people” but that Tweet was deleted.

There is no one correct way to protest a person/policy/action, McHenry may see things differently, but Durant has chosen to stay away. That’s valid — traditionally these “champions to the White House” things are tedious photo ops with a few bad jokes thrown in. Having a hoops fan/player in Obama in the White House made the NBA visits more entertaining the past eight years, there was some trash talk, but still, they are largely just a public relations moment. If KD doesn’t want to play the PR game with Trump, that’s a legitimate response.

This has all been a tempest in a teapot. Until/unless the White House actually invites the Warriors to come, it’s all kind of moot.

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.