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.

“Tired” Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest. Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game, at his own request.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

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“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.

LeBron James hits go-ahead shot in All-Star win (video)

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LOS ANGELES – LeBron James‘ team trailed by 13 midway through the fourth quarter of the All-Star game, but he led a competitive comeback.

This shot put his team up 146-145 over Stephen Curry‘s team, and Team LeBron held on for a 148-145 win:

Great penetration by Russell Westbrook, and he and Kyrie Irving moved the ball well. LeBron made it count.