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PBT NBA Finals preview: Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs (part deux)

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SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio Spurs 62-20 (No. 1 seed in West)

Miami Heat 54-28 (No. 2 seed in East)

KEY INJURIES

San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker sprained his ankle in Game 4 against the Thunder and aggravated it in Game 5, by the second half of Game 6 Gregg Popovich shut him down. He says he wants and plans to play in Game 1 of the Finals, but how explosive he is, the Spurs need the Full Parker in this series.

Miami Heat: Nothing of note (Chris Andersen returned from his injury and with five days off should be good to go in Game 1).

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS IN PLAYOFFS (points per 100 possession)

San Antonio Spurs: Offense 111.2 (second in playoffs); Defense 101 (second we in playoffs)

Miami Heat: Offense 113.7 (first in playoffs); Defense 102.8 (fifth in playoffs)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1. Miami will go small, can the Spurs adjust? Last year in the Finals Miami had much more success with it’s small lineups, putting in three point shooters in to get enough floor spacing (remember they started Mike Miller). As we saw against the Thunder, it is likely Gregg Popovich has to match that by not playing Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan together (even though the Spurs defense is much better when they are paired), and we can expect to see a heavy dose of Boris Diaw (which allows the Spurs to “go small” without really going all that small). Miami’s real weapon here is Dwyane Wade — his knees did not let him perform up to a high level last Finals, this season Eric Spoelstra had him on a knee maintenance program of rest all season long and it has paid off. Vintage Wade, even in just four or five games, would be a big boost for Miami.

2. Spurs ball movement vs. Heat pressure defense. Miami’s defense is all about using their athleticism to force turnovers and pressure teams into poor decisions, which then become transition points for the Heat going to other way. No team is better suited to counter this than the Spurs with their ball movement — but they struggled at points against Oklahoma City when the Thunder cranked up the athleticism and defense pressure. The Spurs need to be more consistent this series.

Two key things to watch when the Spurs are on offense. First, how does Manu Ginobili handle the pressure (especially if he gets more time as the defacto point guard with Parker having a bum ankle)? Last Finals he struggled, he was out of control and missed some big plays, and it cost the Spurs. San Antonio needs the Ginobili from the last series to show up.

Second, how does Chris Bosh work on the pick-and-roll? San Antonio will drag him out to be the big defending in that situation and he has to contain Parker, Ginobili and the rest of them and not let them get into the paint. Once there and with the Spurs ball movement even the athletic Heat can’t rotate fast enough to stop a clean-look shot.

3. Kawhi Leonard on LeBron James. Last series for six games Kawhi Leonard went under picks and gave LeBron the jump shot, and LeBron took the bait. He hit a decent number of them at times, but he was passive. Game 7 was different, LeBron consistently still attacked in that situation. It’s not just Leonard on LeBron for the Spurs — he is a team-wide focus — but the same defensive principles will be in place. If LeBron is attacking and getting inside the Heat will be effective and efficient on offense, if he is settling for jumpers the Spurs win. LeBron’s going to get his, Leonard just has to make that happen from the outside, he has to make LeBron work for his buckets. Pretty much the exact same rules apply to Dwyane Wade.

PREDICTIONS (from the PBT staff)

Kurt Helin: San Antonio is a better team than they were a year ago, Miami is not playing as well as last year’s version. Plus, the Spurs have been forced to raise their level of execution to a much higher place just to get to the Finals (Miami was not nearly tested the same way). I would take the Spurs in 5 if not for two words: LeBron James. Even so, Spurs in 7.

Brett Pollakoff: The Heat have the game’s best player in LeBron James, and picking against him at this stage of his career implies at least a certain amount of foolishness. With that being said, the way the Spurs used an entire team effort to close out the Thunder on the road reminds us that Gregg Popovich’s system might simply be destined to out-execute the defending champs in a rematch of last year’s epic seven-game series. Spurs in 7.

Dan Feldman. Spurs in 7. San Antonio is slightly better and Miami slightly worse than last season, when the Heat won the series by a razor-thin margin. Honestly, I’m leery about picking against LeBron and hardly confident in my pick. This one could really go either way.

Lillard scores 31 as surging Blazers beat Rockets 116-103

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Damian Lillard sparked a second-quarter outburst for the Portland Trail Blazers and finished with 31 points and nine assists in a 116-103 win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night.

Maurice Harkless set season highs with 19 points and 13 rebounds for the Blazers, who moved past Houston into a tie with Utah for seventh place in the Western Conference standings. They enter the All-Star break having won three in a row and eight of nine.

James Harden had 34 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds for the Rockets, who have dropped three straight and six of eight to fall out of playoff position. Dwight Howard dominated the paint with 28 points and 13 rebounds.

After trailing by as many as 21 in the second half, Houston closed to 93-88 early in the fourth quarter. But a Blazers timeout led to a scoring burst that restored the lead to 20 with 3:47 to go.

An entertaining, if at times sloppy, game took on a far more spirited air with 5:02 left in the second quarter. Patrick Beverly committed a hard, and needless, foul on Lillard just past halfcourt, sending the Blazers point guard sprawling.

Lillard spiked the ball in anger, officials reviewed the play to determine if it was a flagrant foul, and the crowd roared as Portland reeled off eight consecutive points and closed the half on a 13-4 run to take a 57-46 lead into the locker room.

What had all the look and feel of that mail-it-in last day of work before vacation – both teams are off until Feb. 19 thanks to the All-Star break – suddenly played out like the battle for the eighth and final playoff seed in the West that it was.

Beverly and Lillard have had run-ins before, and the fans expressed their feelings toward Beverly with a cacophony of boos throughout the game. Lillard sparked the half-ending run with a 3-pointer, and Harkless added another 3 and a driving layup to bring the fans to their feet and prompt a Houston timeout.

Until Beverly’s foul, the game was fairly even as neither team placed a premium on tough defense or ball security. Through the first quarter both teams shot at least 50 percent from the field and they combined for 20 turnovers in the first half, 13 by Houston.

Tempers and intensity subsided to start the second half, until Houston’s Jason Terry picked up a technical foul for throwing an elbow into the ribs of Meyers Leonard as they ran down the court following Terry’s jumper.

Leonard and C.J. McCollum chipped in 14 points each for Portland. Gerald Henderson scored 13 off the bench.

Clint Capela had 10 rebounds for the Rockets.

TIP-INS

Rockets: F Terrence Jones, who went to nearby Jefferson High School in Portland, missed his fourth consecutive game and remains in the NBA’s concussion protocol. He was injured in a car accident on Feb. 3. Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who attended Oregon State, said the team hopes to get positive news regarding Jones’ return after the All-Star break.

Trail Blazers: Lillard was added to the U.S. national team pool. He fell just short of a place on the 2014 World Cup of Basketball roster and wasn’t among the original 30 candidates for Rio de Janeiro announced last month. . F Noah Vonleh was in uniform for the first time after missing three games with a sprained left ankle. He did not play. . Before the game, the Blazers held a moment of silence in memory of Ingrid Williams, the wife of former Portland assistant coach Monty Williams. She died Wednesday from injuries sustained in a car accident Tuesday in Oklahoma City, where Monty Williams is now an assistant with the Thunder.

UP NEXT

Rockets: At Phoenix on Feb. 19.

Trail Blazers: Host Golden State on Feb. 19.

Timberwolves come back from 18 down to stun Raptors, 117-112

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 10:  Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves shoots against the Toronto Raptors on February 10, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Karl-Anthony Towns had 35 points and 11 rebounds, and the Minnesota Timberwolves came back from 18 points down to stun the Toronto Raptors 117-112 on Wednesday night.

Canadian star Andrew Wiggins scored 13 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, including a jumper with under 2 minutes to go that gave Minnesota a 112-109 lead. Ricky Rubio had 19 points, eight assists and eight rebounds to outplay All-Star Kyle Lowry, and the Wolves used a huge advantage at the free throw line to close out a team that had won 14 of its last 15 games.

DeMar DeRozan scored 35 points for the Raptors, who head home to host All-Star Weekend beginning on Friday night. But Lowry was held to 14 points and seven assists while battling foul trouble, and the combination of Wiggins and Towns was too much down the stretch.

Minnesota set season highs with 43 free throws made on 53 attempts on the way to its largest comeback win of the season. The Raptors were whistled for 34 fouls compared to 21 for the Wolves.

The Raptors looked to be cruising toward a highly anticipated weekend in Canada when they raced out to an 18-point lead in the second quarter. Then Lowry picked up his fourth foul, Jonas Valanciunas couldn’t handle Towns in the paint and the Timberwolves came all the way back to grab the lead early in the fourth quarter.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey emphasized before the game the need for a veteran group to hold it together for one more night before the party starts in Toronto. The Raptors were facing a Timberwolves team with the third-worst record in the West that was just blown out by lowly New Orleans in this building two nights prior.

When the Raptors got up big early, they may have relaxed a little bit and they found themselves in a fight for the final 9 minutes.

Rubio’s third 3-pointer gave the Timberwolves a 104-98 lead with 5:24 to play.

The Raptors fought back to tie the game with under 3 minutes to play, but Wiggins hit big shot after big shot a day before heading back to his hometown to play in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night.

Gorgui Dieng had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and all five Timberwolves starters finished in double figures.

TIP-INS

Raptors: Their 68 points were their most in a first half this season. … Bismack Biyombo left in the second quarter after a nasty spill under the basket but was able to return in the second half. … The Raptors made 10 of 31 3-pointers to just 4 of 14 for Minnesota.

Timberwolves: F Tayshaun Prince missed the game to attend former teammate Chauncey Billups’ jersey retirement ceremony in Detroit. … Zach LaVine started in Prince’s place and finished with 13 points. … The Wolves again played without Kevin Garnett (leg), Nikola Pekovic (ankle) and Kevin Martin (wrist).

UP NEXT

Raptors: Visit Chicago on Feb. 19.

Timberwolves: Visit Memphis on Feb. 19.

Celtics rally late, overtake Clippers in overtime 139-134

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BOSTON (AP) — Isaiah Thomas had 36 points and 11 assists, including a fade away jumper that sent the game to an extra period, to help the Boston Celtics overtake the Los Angeles Clippers 139-134 in overtime on Wednesday night.

Jared Sullinger added 21 points and 11 rebounds. Jae Crowder finished with 19 points, and Avery Bradley added 18 points as the Celtics won their eighth straight at home.

Boston played the second half without big man Kelly Olynyk. He left late in the first half with a bruised right shoulder.

The Clippers led by five late in regulation, but went without a field goal for more than three minutes.

Chris Paul led the Clippers with 35 points and 13 assists. J.J. Redick added 27 points and DeAndre Jordan finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds.

The loss spoiled what may be Clippers’ forward Paul Pierce‘s final game in the Boston Garden. The 38-year-old played 15 seasons with the Celtics and was facing his former team for the eighth time.

The Clippers opened overtime with a four-point play by Redick.

After a Celtics miss, he was fouled again on a 3-point attempt, and connected on two of his three free throws to give Los Angeles a six-point lead.

Boston didn’t go away, and eventually tied it on a jumper by Evan Turner. Turner then put the Celtics in front 135-132 via a three-point play – his seventh straight point – with 1:33 left.

Both teams traded baskets, before Pierce came up short on a 27-footer that was rebounded by the Celtics.

Los Angeles had a chance to tie it up, and Jamal Crawford‘s long 3-point attempted nearly banked in before rimming out.

Los Angeles led 120-117 with 56 seconds to play in regulation after Thomas was fouled on a driving layup. He missed his ensuing free throw, but it was rebounded by Sullinger. He connected on the first of his two free throws to trim it to 120-118.

Following a pair of free throws by Redick, Thomas gave the Celtics life again with a teardrop jumper.

Paul missed a long jumper with the shot clock winding down on the Clippers next possession, but Jae Crowder was called for a loose ball foul with 23.3 remaining

Jordan misfired on both ensuing free throws, and Thomas tied it with fade away jumper.

Paul had a good look at a jumper that would have won it regulation, but it bounced off the side of the rim at the buzzer.

TIP-INS

Clippers: The Clippers did not have a field goal for the final 3:29 of regulation. … Paul had 10 points and five assists in the first quarter. It was the 37th time in his career he’s had at least 10 points and five assists in a quarter. That’s the most in NBA since 2005-06.

Celtics: Improved to 10-3 in the second game of back-to-backs.

Kobe Bryant with spin move around LeBron James (VIDEO)

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The game itself went about how you’d expect one between a title contender and a high lottery team to go — the Cavaliers 120-111 win over the Lakers was never really in doubt.

But the fans in Cleveland wanted to see some vintage Kobe Bryant, and they got it late when he spun around LeBron James and hit the reverse lay-up.

LeBron had 29 points on the night, and Kyrie Irving had 35. Kobe finished with 17 and got a standing ovation from the Cleveland crowd.