Finals show burden Heat put on LeBron James, need to retool Miami roster


MIAMI — If I had to use one word to describe Heat players after Game 4, it would be bewildered.

All season long, Miami made the same errors we have seen from them in the Finals: up and down effort, inconsistent defensive traps and rotations, guys not attacking the paint and settling for jump shots (and the list goes on and on).

The difference is coming out of the soft Eastern Conference nobody made the Heat pay. That left the door open for Miami’s answer:

LeBron James.

He was the trump card. He covered their flaws All season long the Heat counted on LeBron to do virtually everything: Create offense for himself, create offense for others, and often defend the opponent’s best player in crunch time.

All season long LeBron was the Miami Heat. In the Eastern Conference that was enough.

He’s not enough against San Antonio.

No team has made the Heat pay for their flaws like the Spurs. Half-hearted traps are quickly exposed with a sharp pass, every slow rotation becomes a lay-up or an open three. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will search the game tapes and the depth chart looking for an answer, but there will be none.

Other than more LeBron James.

That fact and series in general points out the challenge in front of Heat president Pat Riley — this roster needs to be retooled. LeBron can’t do it all by himself, and when he has been on the bench the Heat have looked terrible.

After the Game 1 when LeBron cramped up in the sauna that was the AT&T Center he got hit with complaints he was not there to lift his team up and give them a chance.

Games 3 and 4 have shown just how much lifting he has to do. How much pressure is on him.

“I don’t really get caught up in what pressure is all about…” LeBron tried to play it off after the Heat’s Game 4 loss. “For me, I do whatever it takes to help our team win. If it’s me going one-on-one to try to help us win, if it’s me getting guys involved and taking threes in rhythm, then I’ll do it. But I don’t really get caught up in the pressure.”

Miami’s Game 4 loss was not on LeBron’s shoulders other than they are not broad enough to carry the flawed Heat past the Spurs. Through three quarters LeBron had 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting, the rest of the Heat had 29 points on 27.8 percent shooting. LeBron hit 6-of-10 contested shots and was 4-of-6 when left open.

“It’s not (all) on my shoulders. It’s not,” LeBron said. “I understand I get a lot of the limelight in the press and all that, but it’s not all on my shoulder. I take a lot of it, but I do it for my teammates and I want them to put a lot of pressure on me in that sense.”

They do. He will hear about it on social media. He will hear about how the eventual loss in this series will taint a legacy that is still being written.

But anyone who goes back and watches this series will see LeBron carried as much of a burden as could be asked. It’s just that pushing this Heat roster past the Spurs is more like the job Sisyphus had.

A lot has been asked of LeBron by the Heat. Now the burden should fall on Pat Riley to repair this roster.

Through unpredictable season for Spurs, Popovich remains steady

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Gregg Popovich is not changing how he coaches, not after 22 seasons leading the Spurs.

The NBA’s most tenured steward is always going to focus on defense. He’s always going to dismiss talk of his brilliance because “it’s just basketball.” And he’s not going to overwork his players even though an unprecedented rash of injuries has the Spurs battling for their playoff lives for the first time in two decades.

“At this point, he’s not changing,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It’s a formula that has worked quite well. They have great veteran leadership and they pass it along to the young guys. You see the young guys are growing. That’s why they’re so good.”

They’re not as good as they have been, but their impressive success this year is a testament to Popovich.

San Antonio has been without MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games this season and Tony Parker, Rudy Gay and Danny Green have all missed significant time with various injuries. In all, the Spurs have missed 165 games as a team while battling everything from sprained MCLs to fractured wrists.

The injuries haven’t dramatically altered how Popovich manages the 82-game regular season.

“I think Pop did a great job overall, it’s not easy,” Parker said. “It was a tough one for him this year. Since I’ve been here, we have never had that many injuries. So, Pop did the best he could and I think overall he did a good job.”

Aside from All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, no Spurs player is averaging more than 28 minutes per game and veterans Parker and Manu Ginobili are averaging 20 minutes per game. Popovich has also been able to sit Aldridge, Ginobili and Pau Gasol for rest during the season.

Popovich was among the first coaches to sit players for rest rather than injury. He opted to keep Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green at home rather than have them play at Miami on Nov. 30, 2012. The action resulted in a $250,000 fine and sharp rebuke from then NBA Commissioner David Stern. The NBA changed its rules to allow teams to rest its players, but only if they listed in a timely manner who would be resting on their injury reports.

Popovich doesn’t have the firepower to repeat that mass seating now.

“It was hard to rest guys, limit guys’ minutes,” Green said. “We had some guys come back from injuries, that’s when he limited some of the guys’ minutes.”

But Popovich still has made sure players received their needed rest.

The 40-year-old Ginobili has provided the Spurs with a needed lift this month after sitting out eight games to rest. In Wednesday’s victory over Washington, Ginobili outran 31-year-old Ramon Sessions to a loose ball and then dove on it to save the possession.

“It just tells you that nobody has an excuse not to do it,” 37-year-old center Pau Gasol said of Ginobili’s hustle. “A 40-year-old does it, what about a 25 or 30 or 35 or 37 year old?”

Parker has not sat out any games for rest, but he did miss the first 19 games of the season after recovering from left quadriceps tendon surgery. Even before he lost his starting position to Dejounte Murray, Parker has spent a lot of time on the bench. Not that Parker has enjoyed the time off the court.

“For me personally, I’m just trying to get back to 100 percent it was almost too much rest,” Parker said. “I wish I had played more games, but it is what it is. Other guys, I hope they feel fresher. We’re going to need it.”

While Parker may not enjoy the rest, it seems to be paying off.

The Spurs have won five straight after losing eight of 11 games to drop into 10th place in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs. San Antonio was in sixth place, one-half game behind Oklahoma City.

The Spurs recently beat a short-handed Golden State team by 14 points. The Spurs played with energy that they haven’t shown since early in the season when they were third in the West.

That should help then down the stretch, and possibly into the playoffs. Being rested, healthy and playing good defense is a recipe that has yielded five championships in Popovich’s tenure and extended the careers of franchise stalwarts like Tim Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.

“Everybody’s bringing the juice,” Murray said. “We’re playing together on offense. I just feel like there’s more juice on defense. As I always say, defense, we’ve all got to be on the same page and be hungry and greedy on `D.’ We’ve got to keep going, we can’t get comfortable.”


Giannis Antetokounmpo to tell his story on 60 Minutes this week (preview clip)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo grew up hocking wares — clothes, sunglasses, whatever — on the streets of Athens, Greece. He easily could still be living there, the tallest salesman in a poor part of a country with high unemployment and real challenges.

Instead, he is a multimillionaire living comfortably in the United States, and is one of the 10 best basketball players in the world — and still improving. In a few years we may well be saying he is the best player on the planet.

Antetokounmpo will be telling his story on the legendary television news magazine 60 Minutes this week, and the show released a clip. Check it out.

This is the best missed free throw to game winner you will ever see

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We’ve all seen this situation before at every level of basketball: A team down three points gets fouled in the final seconds and has two free throws, so the shooter aims to make the first free throw then miss the second and create a rebound he or a teammate can grab then throw back in to tie the game. It works about as often as an NFL Hail Mary — either the shooter makes the shot anyway or the defense gets the board — but what other choice is there?

Nobody has ever pulled it off as well as Paulinho Boracini of the Brazilian league team Cearense.

Intentional or not (and I lean not), he banked the second free throw off the rim toward the corner, ran it down himself and hit the game-winning three.

Damn. That’s impressive.

(If Boracini and Cearense sound familiar, you win the award for “watching too much Knicks preseason basketball” because they played New York in a 2015 exhibition.)

Giannis Antetokounmpo doubtful with ankle injury for Bulls game

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MILWAUKEE (AP) The Milwaukee Bucks say Giannis Antetokounmpo is doubtful for Friday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls with a sprained right ankle.

The All-Star forward got hurt in the second quarter of a 127-120 loss on Wednesday to the Los Angeles Clippers when he appeared to trip over teammate Shabazz Muhammad under the Bucks’ basket.

Antetokounmpo is fourth in the league in scoring at 27.3 points a game.