Kawhi Leonard ,LeBron James

Three match-ups to watch closely when Heat take on Spurs in NBA Finals

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Playoffs series are all about match-ups — can you get a favorable one, exploit it and gain an edge. Can you force a player into something he doesn’t do well — drag a slow-footing big man out to defend the pick-and-roll, or post up a smaller defender and pound him with size.

The team that can win the key match-ups in a series usually wins.

Miami and San Antonio are in the NBA Finals starting Thursday night in part because they create and exploit mismatches better than most. The Spurs do it through system, the Heat because LeBron James is a walking mismatch.

Here are three match-ups to watch in these Finals.

LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard. This is the one in the spotlight — Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will have their moments but LeBron James doesn’t just drive the Miami bus, it is his bus. Last Finals Kawhi Leonard had success on LeBron by going under every pick, playing back and daring him to take jump shots, and that carried over to the team’s two regular season meetings — LeBron was 5-of-22 outside the restricted area in those two games. Also this regular season, Miami scored 87.9 points per 100 possessions when Leonard was on the court and 114.5 when he sat. In Game 7 of the Finals last season LeBron took 20-of-23 shots outside the paint — he’s going to hit some, LeBron is good like that, but he’s the best finisher at the rim in the game. Better to have him fire away from the outside if you are the Spurs. Watch where LeBron is shooting from in this series.

[MORE: Five things that are different in this rematch]

Danny Green vs. Dwyane Wade. Another matchup where the Heat had some success last season, although that speaks more to the state of Dwyane Wade’s knees at the time than some magical defensive formula. When Wade was on the court in the 2013 Finals (254 minutes) the Spurs were +10.2 per 48 minutes, when he sat the Heat were +27.4 per 48 (just 86 minutes). Dwyane Wade is moving and playing much better these playoffs, shooting 51 percent, and he is more aggressive in getting to the rim. The Spurs will try to make him a jump shooter as well, but he will put more pressure on them this year. On the other end, Danny Green has been huge for the Spurs offense with his ability to hit threes and the Spurs are +15.2 per 100 possessions when he is on the court these playoffs. Remember he hit seven three pointers in one Finals game last season, the Heat need to track him better.

Chris Bosh vs. Tim Duncan. Bosh will be one of the biggest keys for the Heat at both ends of the court and he is going to have to have a big Finals for the Heat to threepeat. On offense, he had two monster regular season games against San Antonio, scoring 24 in each on a combined 19-of-26 shooting. His ability to pull Duncan away from the basket defensively and defend the arc will open up driving lanes for LeBron and Wade. On the other end, the Spurs are going to make Bosh defend the pick-and-roll and he has to cut off Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili’s path into the paint — when those two get in the lane they can break down any defense, Bosh has to slow them at the point of attack. But he just can’t focus on them, Duncan averaged 23 points a game in the two regular season meetings this season and was knocking down midrange shots as well, plus exploiting some post up opportunities. If Duncan is abusing Bosh it will force Spoelstra to change lineups early.

Miami Heat to retire Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey next season

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Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 32 jersey already hangs in the rafters at Staples Center for the Lakers.  He’s getting a statue there, too.

Next season, he will have his number retired on the other warm southern coast, this time in Miami.

The Heat have announced they will retire Shaq’s No. 32 jersey next season.

“Shaquille O’Neal is one of the truly elite players in the history of the game and one of the greatest players to ever wear a Heat uniform,” team president Pat Riley said in a released statement. “He took us to another level as a basketball franchise while leading us to our first NBA championship. Retiring his number in the rafters, along with Heat greats Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, is something we are very proud of.”

Riley left out that the Heat also retired Michael Jordan’s 23, and Dan Marino’s 12 also hangs in the rafters of the arena. Neither of those make much sense, but whatever.

Shaq played three-and-a-half seasons in Miami, averaging 19.6 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. Shaq was a three-time All-Star with the Heat and was at the heart of the franchise’s first title, along with Dwyane Wade… and Mark Cuban would tell you the officials. But that’s another discussion. He was also bitter after being traded to Phoenix and slammed Miami management and players on his way out the door.

Time heals all wounds.

Bull for Bull: Pau Gasol to replace Jimmy Butler in All-Star Game

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 6:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Chicago Bulls prepares to shoot a free throw against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 6, 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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Jimmy Butler is out of the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto this weekend due to a strained knee. Which suck, because he earned that spot, and while the fans didn’t vote him in the coach’s did.

Butler’s teammate Pau Gasol will replace him.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver gets to make the call on a replacement, and he stayed in Chicago, but he added a front court player to replace a guard. Keeping a Bulls representative might have been part of the thinking. The coaches’ votes on replacement players has been weighed in the past (Gasol may have been high on that list, coaches love him). Also, the East roster has a lot of wings and was light on bigs (Andre Drummond, Paul Millsap and Chris Bosh are the only real bigs), so this gives coach Tyronn Lue some flexibility up front.

The East leading Cleveland Cavaliers remain with just one representative, LeBron James (voted in by the fans).

Gasol is averaging 17 points, 10.9 rebounds, and a couple blocks a game, and is the only thing close to a consistent performer the Bulls have. Besides the injured Butler.

Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler out 3-4 weeks with strained knee

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It was concerning when it happened — Jimmy Butler injured his knee and had to be taken off the court on a stretcher.

But then the reports came back saying the X-rays were negative, this was just a strain. Butler was going to miss some time, but the question was how much?

Turns out, 3-4 weeks — including the All-Star Game, the team announced Tuesday. From the official team press release:

Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler was re-examined by Bulls Head Team Physician Brian Cole.  Butler is expected to miss the next three to four weeks with a strained left knee. Butler has begun rehabbing his injury and he will be allowed to engage in all activities as tolerated with the primary goal of maintaining his conditioning over the ensuing weeks.

Butler is the Bulls best player, averaging 22.4 points a game and handling a lot of the shot creation for the team (along with Derrick Rose, who was out Monday injured). The Bulls offense is 1.6 points per 100 possessions better when Butler plays, plus he usually draws the other team’s best wing player as his defensive assignment.

Following an ugly loss to the Hornets Monday night, the Bulls are now 5-12 in their last 17 games. Since Joakim Noah went out for the season with an injured shoulder in particular, their defense has struggled. They still have no offensive identity.  Chicago has fallen to the seven seed in the West, just 1.5 games ahead of Charlotte and falling out of the playoffs completely. This injury is simply going to add to that slide.

The Bulls thought they were the team that could challenge Cleveland for supremacy in the East at the start of the season. Now they may need a late push just to make the playoffs.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will pick his All-Star Game replacement. In the past, he has picked the player highest in the fan voting not selected as a reserve, in this case that would be Kyrie Irving. But Silver can go any direction he chooses.

Report: George Karl to remain Kings coach following face-to-face meeting with GM

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George Karl isn’t going anywhere as coach of the Sacramento Kings after all.

At least for now.

Marc Stein of ESPN, who had the report that the Kings decided to fire Karl during the All-Star Break — now says the two sides have sat down and hashed things out. For now.

Those first reports went too far down the line, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

First things first, the Kings are a leaky organization right now. Which is never a good sign.

This has become a power struggle in the organization — DeMarcus Cousins has said the Kings’ problems go beyond the players, and he is known not to be a fan of Karl (Rajon Rondo is the coach’s biggest supporter because Karl gives him a green light). Owner Vivek Ranadive remains too impatient, stability is needed.

But there are still big picture questions to be answered.

Ranadive, with Vlade Divac, needs to sit down and set the long-term course for this team, including style of play they want to have, then decide if Karl can be part of that future. Also, if Cousins can be part of that future. If those two can be part of the future together (I’m not sure they can).

There needs to be more meetings with the Kings, and then this summer some significant decisions must be made. But doing it now at the All-Star break isn’t going to change anything. So Karl stays.