Game 2 of these NBA Finals will be remembered for LeBron James going off. As they should be. He did, to the tune of 35 and 10, plus he got other teammates involved late.
But that’s not the only Spurs problem from Game 2.
Miami played much improved defense in Game 2. That defensive energy and strategy are something coming on the plane with them back to Miami and Game 3 at the American Airlines Arena on Tuesday night. It’s what the Spurs have to adjust to if they are going to steal a game in Florida and even the series.
Miami is 8-0 in the playoffs at home, although they came out of the weak East so take that number with a few grains of salt.
In Game 2 Miami mostly switched pick-and-rolls, which they can do because Chris Bosh is one of the better pick-and-roll defending big men in the NBA (he can challenge the ball handler, then recover as needed, plus he did a good job of closing out on Boris Diaw at the arc in the final minutes). This was a change from the Heat’s default defense of trapping the ball handler, and it worked because with the switch the other defenders could stay home on their shooters. The bottom line is it kept the Spurs from just owning the paint — San Antonio took 11 midrange jumpers in Game 1 and 23 in Game 2. They did take a step back and hit nine three pointers in the second half of Game 2, but they need to get into the paint more.
That is the Spurs challenge in Game 3 is to get back inside consistently — then finish the play. Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter were a combined 14-of-16 shooting in the paint in Game 1, but in Game 2 they shot just 8-of-14 in the restricted area as the more aggressive Heat challenged everything.
One thing to watch for, which we saw a little of in Game 2, was the lineup the Spurs used a lot in 2013 — Tim Duncan in the paint and four perimeter players to space the floor around him. Splitter may start but the two big thing is not where the Spurs will spend most of the game. (Boris Diaw lets Popovich go small without actually going small.)
With Miami back home you can expect another good game from LeBron, but the real key is the support. Chris Bosh continues to space the floor and hit big shots. Dwyane Wade has been solid but expect in one of these next to games for him to do more than just flop on Manu Ginobili. The other big key is so far has been Rashard Lewis, who has been a threat from three and played solid defense.
Mario Chalmers has struggled through this series, if he continues to there will be some Noris Cole and a lot of no point guard lineups. Erik Spoelstra has shown the ability to adapt, and he will go with what works in terms of lineups.
But at the end of the day he has the best weapon in the game in LeBron James. And there is no good matchup for that.
Watch Justin Timberlake drain half-court shot, a couple of three pointers
Maybe the world’s biggest performer right now — and part owner of the Memphis Grizzlies — swung by the Washington Wizards practice facility and drained a few shots like it was nothing. The man can’t stop the feeling.
Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) As playoffs near and pressure mounts, coach/player release valve is to vent at referees. Sunday we saw the latest in the run of coaches or players ripping NBA officials, leading to questions of just how strained are the relationships between the two sides. The most recent guy to vent was DeMar DeRozan after the Raptors did not get calls down the stretch in a loss to the Thunder at home Sunday.
DeRozan on officiating: "The league needs to do something because it's not just us, it's every game. But tonight… common, man. That can't happen. It can't happen."
DeRozan, asked if the Raptors are treated fairly: "No, we’re used to going against the odds… It’s been like that. We fight through it, but as soon as we say something, we’re the bad guys, we get fined, we get criticized… but we’ve all got a breaking point & it’s frustrating."
DeRozan is about to get his second fine of the season for criticizing officials.
Also, in this case DeRozan is right — Corey Brewer absolutely fouled him on a drive to the basket when the Raptors were down two with :30 seconds left in the game. It was a critical missed call by Marc Davis and the crew. Then a frustrated DeRozan got tossed. Then Serge Ibaka got tossed for continuing on the same arguments DeRozan was having. Then Dwane Casey got thrown out for something a fan said behind him because by this point the officials had a case of rabbit ears (the best part of the Casey ejection was OKC’s Brewer laughing and shaking his head at the bad call). The Last Two Minute Report on this should be ugly.
That follows on the heels of Pelicans’ coach Alvin Gentry venting “you can’t guess on plays.” Which itself was on the heels of Stan Van Gundy venting “we got absolutely screwed all night” after a loss to red-hot Portland. Both of those coaches were fined $15,000 Sunday for their outbursts.
What gives with all the venting at officials?
Welcome to the stressful time of the NBA season. With playoff chases going on and pressure mounting on coaches and players, they need a release valve and so the officials take the brunt of it. Sure, there have been enough tensions between players and referees all season that there was a sparsely attended meeting All-Star weekend between the players and referees unions, but the reality is tension between coaches/players and referees existed when George Mikan was playing and it will exist 25 years from now. Players are trying to gain every advantage, referees are trying to enforce the rules in a fast-paced, hard-to-officiate sport, and the tension is natural. There are peaks and valleys, but it’s always there. It always has been.
Right now, the Raptors feel the pressure that this is their window — with Cleveland and Boston stumbling (and banged up), this year is Toronto’s best shot at a trip to the Finals, and they know it. Alvin Gentry and the Pelicans are in the midst of a fight to make the playoffs. Stan Van Gundy feels the pressure of keeping his jobs (GM and coach) in a league where the buzz is he’s going to lose at least one of those titles. Every game takes on added meaning, the pressure makes everything feel heavy, so guys need to vent and the officials become the target. That doesn’t mean the coach/player is wrong — DeRozan was not, the officials were terrible at the end of Sunday’s game — but that’s not the only reason Toronto lost (Serge Ibaka was bad, Steven Adams pushed the Raptors around inside, and I could go on).
It’s the time of year in the NBA when the referees get an outsized portion of the blame when teams and fans are frustrated with a loss. And that will continue right through the playoffs.
2) By the way, Thunder won and Russell Westbrook has five straight triple-doubles. The mess with the officiating obscured what was an entertaining basketball game Sunday in Toronto.
Oklahoma City was a team that looked on the playoff bubble a couple of weeks ago, but since has rattled off six straight wins. There are three reasons for that. First, their defense is back to being top five in the NBA (it had fallen way off when Andre Roberson went down). Second, Corey Brewer has become the rare buyout signing that actually has a real impact — he has stepped into Roberson’s starting spot and given them three-point shooting and a solid veteran presence on both ends.
The third reason, Russell Westbrook is a beast. He had 37 points, 14 assists, and 13 rebounds against the Raptors.
For those of you out there who are saying, “See, this loss is why I can’t trust the Raptors in the playoffs,” you’re just wrong. You need some context. This was the Raptors third game in four days, and it had an early (1 p.m. ET) start. At the end of the game, the Raptors just looked tired. If you’ve watched Toronto all season, they have done well in the clutch. They are 22-14 in games within five points in the final five minutes this season. Nothing to see here, move along.
3) West playoff chase update: Thunder, Pelicans, Rockets, Trail Blazers all pick up wins; Timberwolves, Clippers pick up losses. There were some key games in the West playoff chase on Sunday. The Pelicans picked up a quality win against Boston as Anthony Davis went off for 24 points and 11 rebounds. James Harden had 34 points and 12 assists as the Rockets beat the Timberwolves. Finally, Portland had little trouble getting their 13th straight win, knocking off the Clippers.
Sunday’s action means Portland remains the three seed and the Thunder the four seed, and those teams seem to be moving toward locking in those spots. The Pelicans are the six seed, and with a couple of losses in a row now the Timberwolves have fallen back to the eighth and final spot. Still, Minnesota is 1.5 games up on Denver (ninth seed) and 2 games up on the Clippers, who have lost three in a row at the wrong time of the season.
James Harden scores 34, Rockets hold off Timberwolves 129-120
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) —James Harden had 34 points and 12 assists, and Houston held off a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 129-120 on Sunday night for the Rockets’ 26th win in 28 games.
The West’s top team led by as many as 25 before the Timberwolves, holding on for dear life in a tightening playoff race, pulled within five in the fourth. The loss dropped the Wolves into the eighth playoff spot after they started the day in a three-way tie for fifth.
Harden had 11 points in the final 6:34, including a 3-pointer with 58 seconds left that effectively secured the win.
The Wolves got a burst of energy after a fourth-quarter scuffle between Gorgui Dieng, Paul and Gerald Green. Green was ejected for coming to Paul’s defense after a frustrated Dieng pushed him down after a foul. With the pumped-up crowd chanting “Gor-Gui!,” Derek Rose had back-to-back layups to pull the Wolves to 109-102. But Paul hit a jumper with Crawford in his face, and Harden easily drove past Dieng for a layup to give the Rockets some breathing room.
Minnesota’s 19-6 run made it 115-110 with 3:58 to play before Trevor Ariza hit a 3, and the Rockets were able to answer every Wolves bucket to hold off the rally.
The game was seemingly over by halftime; Houston shot 63 percent, hit 11 3-pointers and led by as many as 24 in the first half while turning the ball over only three times. Harden had 10 assists in the first half, when the Wolves were as close as three before Houston reeled off a 12-0 run and didn’t allow Minnesota to recover.
Jimmy Butler targeting return to Timberwolves before end of season
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Jimmy Butler could return to the court for the Minnesota Timberwolves before the end of the regular season, if he stays on track with his rehabilitation from knee surgery.
Butler spoke to reporters Sunday for the first time since the meniscus injury he suffered Feb. 23 at Houston . He confirmed an initial recovery estimate of four to six weeks. Even on the long end of that timetable, he’d likely have two games with the Timberwolves before the postseason.
Butler said he’s confident in both his ability to heal in time and the team’s ability to hang on to a spot in the playoffs. The Wolves entered their game against the Rockets in a three-way tie for fifth place in the Western Conference, but no room for a slump.