Miami finally brings its defense, Pacers wilt under pressure

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Miami had not played great defense all playoffs.

To be fair, they played good defense against the Bobcats, but that was a Bobcats team without Al Jefferson so it wasn’t exactly difficult to defend them. The Brooklyn Nets scored 3.8 points more per 100 possessions in the second round than they did in the regular season (Miami just outscored Brooklyn). Then in the opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals the Heat had their worst defensive showing of the playoffs, and it wasn’t great in Game 2 — through two games Indiana was scoring 9.7 points per 100 better than in the regular season.

Saturday night, Miami finally brought the defensive pressure. Well, eventually. They took the first 18 minutes of the game to float around, but for the final 30 minutes Miami cranked it up. LeBron James was up on Paul George. Dwyane Wade was making smart gambles from the weakside and stealing the ball off post entry passes. Miami contested everything.

Indiana wilted — 17 turnovers, or 21.3 percent of their possessions. After starting out hot and hitting 6-of-7 shots inside 8 feet of the basket they got there just 15 times in the final 30 minutes of the game and hit just 7.

Indiana finished scoring 97.8 points per 100 possession, 3.7 below their season average. The defensive pressure got to them.

“That’s our game, however we get into it,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said in his post game press conference, televised on NBA TV. “That’s why this series is so compelling, it’s such a contrast of styles.”

The result was a 99-87 Miami win, giving the Heat a 2-1 lead in the series.

A lot of focus after the game will understandably go to a Heat offense that carved up the vaunted Pacers defense.

But Miami’s offense has always fed off its defense and that was the case Saturday — stops become starts, become buckets in transition. Miami finally defended like the teams that won the last two NBA titles.

If Miami brings that kind of defense the rest of this series they are going to another NBA Finals.

The good news for Pacers fans: Based on what we have seen these playoffs, I wouldn’t bet on that defense returning Monday night.

Early in Game 3 the Heat were the team coughing the ball up, most of those turnovers unforced. That is why Miami only scored 14 points in the first half.

But the Heat also were casual in their defending and it showed — the Pacers were getting transition points just out hustling Miami down the court. Then there was the older, slower Luis Scola looked like his 2007 self, just backing down Chris Bosh and beating him in the post. It was ugly for Heat fans (much of Bosh’s game was ugly).

Then Miami flipped the switch. It started midway through the second half when Udonis Haslem and LeBron re-entered the game. It takes a lot of energy to defend with the pressure they want to (which is why they don’t do it consistently in the regular season) but Miami found it the rest of the way.

It was an impressive run. They can’t expect to get away with this kind of effort against San Antonio in the Finals (sorry OKC, just looks that way) — the Spurs would have throttled them in the first 18 minutes and never taken their foot off their throat.

But like everyone has been saying about the Pacers, maybe the Miami Heat are starting to find their defensive groove. We’ll find out if this was a trend or just a short streak again in Game 4.

Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas offers advice to Ball brothers on Lithuania

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Lithuania is a hoops-mad country.

The Baltic nation has fewer people in it than the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, yet it has three players in the NBA right now — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total (such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis). The country has won three bronze medals in the Olympics ( 1992, 1996, and 2000). It’s Lithuanian league also has been the launching pad for Celtics’ Aron Baynes to make the NBA.

Now the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo are headed there on professional contracts.

One of those players — the Raptors’ Valanciunas, had advice for the Ball brothers, speaking to ESPN.

“They’re getting themselves into a great opportunity. Lithuania is beautiful country… We have great basketball history. We’re such a small country, but we have many, many great players. Our basketball school is good., so they chose a really good school. They just gotta work hard — it’s all about working. You can be as good as you can be by working. Talent is one thing, but work you put in, that’s gonna show up.

“If they have any problems, let me know. I can help them out.”

Good luck finding anyone around the NBA who thinks this ends well, especially those who know the Ball family. They are sending a college freshman and a high school junior to a small city in a former Soviet bloc country with a very different culture, that will be a major adjustment. The coach doesn’t speak English and his former American players have not spoken highly of him. The Lithuanian league itself has men — far more physically developed than the Ball brothers — and is known for a physical style of play. It’s also known as a league where the players have a reasonably high hoops IQ and don’t like undisciplined players.

But if LiAngelo and LaMelo have any problems, they can call Valanciunas.

Paul George on return to Indiana Wednesday: “For whatever reason, I’ll be booed”

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This week is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s “you can’t go home again” week of the schedule. On Saturday night, Carmelo Anthony will return to New York where Knicks fans should welcome him with cheers and open arms — he meant a lot to that franchise in recent years — but may very well not.

First up, however, Paul George returns to Indiana in a Thunder uniform Wednesday night.

There’s little doubt how he will be greeted by Indiana fans, who felt betrayed by a man they stuck by through recovery from a severe injury. George knows what is coming,

Here are the key lines from PG13:

“Boos. I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way. The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to. For whatever reason, I’ll be booed, but I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna thrive on that.”

For whatever reason? You asked to be traded and fans take that personally. There is no loyalty in sports — I have no problem with players asking out because teams show no hesitancy in dumping players they no longer have a use for (and fans are almost always good with that) — but he had to know how this would be taken in Indiana.

What George might want to worry about is stopping the red-hot Victor Oladipo (he averaged 35.7 points per game last week), because he and the Pacers are playing better than the Thunder right now.

Kawhi Leonard returns Tuesday on minutes restriction

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The Spurs have been the Spurs this season, going 19-8 with an elite defense and offense that’s good enough to get them wins, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level.

Starting Tuesday, they add Kawhi Leonard back to the mix.

He will return to the lineup against Dallas, but will be on a minutes restriction, coach Gregg Popovich said on Tuesday. He would not say how many minutes, although around 20 seems a logical starting spot.

Leonard is one of the five best players in the NBA (and that may be selling him short). He averaged a career-high 25.5 points a game last season, he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and he finished third in the MVP voting last season.

However, there are going to be adjustments. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the focal point of the offense, but he could see fewer touches, particularly in crunch time. Kyle Anderson could see fewer minutes, and Rudy Gay may as well because Popovich liked some small-ball lineups last season with Leonard at the four. A lot of players will see their rotations change.

That said, it’s the Spurs. Do we really expect them to be anything but an incredibly good regular season team? One that is about to get better?

 

 

 

Pelicans’ Tony Allen out 3-4 weeks with fibula fracture

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The injuries just keep hitting the Pelicans. Guys like Solomon Hill and Alexis Ajinca are out for extended periods of time. Anthony Davis has missed four of the team’s last six games and is questionable for Wednesday night due to a left adductor injury.

Now comes the news that reserve guard Tony Allen will be out three to four weeks due to a nondisplaced left proximal fibula fracture, the team announced Tuesday. This is the part of the bone near the ankle.

Allen has played a limited role for New Orleans off the bench this season, averaging 12.4 minutes a game, and averaging 4.7 points. His reputation is that of a defensive stopper, and when he is on the court this season the Pelicans’ defense has been 5.6 points per 100 possessions better. However, father time has started to catch up with him and he is not the defender he once was.

Expect the minutes to bump up for Jrue Holiday and E'Twaun Moore with this injury, which is not a bad thing as they have played well (they were knocking down threes against the Rockets Monday like they were named Curry), plus Ian Clark could get a little more run.