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.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.

Watch every one of Jimmy Butler’s career-high 14 assists in win over Bucks (VIDEO)

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler seems to be thriving without backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade. On Sunday in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler dished out a career-high 14 assists to go along with 20 points, six rebounds, and three steals.

Butler, 27, helped Chicago to a 109-94 win over the Bucks. He looked good doing it, dropping dimes off of both the pick-and-roll and while coming off screens.

The NBA put together a handy little video to be able to check out all of Butler’s assists.

Clippers blow 18-point lead, lose in final 2 seconds on putback to Kings (VIDEO)

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The Los Angeles Clippers had a rough go of things against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday. Up by 18 with more than five minutes to go, LA blew their lead and were left to watch as the Kings sealed the game late.

The final possession for Sacramento came on a missed corner 3-pointer by Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. The Kings got the outlet pass out on the rebound, but Ben McLemore took it to the rack and missed. That’s when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped in, cleaned up the board, and put the game-winning shot home with less than two seconds left.

Los Angeles lost in spectacular fashion, and became the only team this season to lose given their game situation.

Here’s a compilation the NBA put together of Sacramento’s epic comeback:

Meanwhile, Chris Paul called it the worst regular season loss of his career.

The Clippers peaked too soon. Like, the first 20 games of the season too soon.