NBA Finals Game 5 preview, Heat at Spurs: Miami tries to put River Walk party on hold

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SAN ANTONIO — The Miami Heat were relaxed.

The day after a Game 4 loss that left them bewildered Ray Allen spent the day on a bike ride, going 14 miles or so from his Coral Gables home, picking up some lunch along the way, just getting outside and clearing his head. The rest of the Heat did something similar, whatever it was it was not basketball. Friday they took a day off.

Miami is down 3-1, on the brink of elimination at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs heading into Sunday night’s Game 5, but when they showed up in San Antonio Saturday afternoon they were surprisingly relaxed and confident.

Last year they faced two elimination games in the Finals against the Spurs, yet won them both. This year it will take three in a series that feels different after San Antonio won the last two games convincingly. But the Heat acted like a team that has been through plenty of adversity and been to four straight Finals. They acted like they have been there before.

That means either they have found their groove, their energy that they can bring for 48 minutes this time, that they are ready to fight for this series.

Or they are resigned to their fate.

“Why not us?” LeBron James asked. “History is broken all the time. And obviously we know we’re against the greatest of odds. No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, but there was a point where no team came back from a 2-0… There was a point where no team came back from a 31 deficit in the Western Conference Finals, and then Phoenix did it. One of our teammates was on that team, James Jones….

“So history is made to be broken, and why not me be a part of it? That would be great.”

“What we talked about is we’re not so entitled or jaded that we’re above having to fight for it, and that’s what it is right now,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said.

As it has been throughout this series, the questions for Miami in Game 5 at the defensive end — their pressure and rotations have not been able to keep up with the Spurs ball movement.

“Regardless (of how we played the pick-and-roll) it felt like we were a step slow on all our rotations, closing out to the three point, the low man getting to the big on the rolls,” Rashard Lewis said. “We was just always late, they were a step faster.”

Even when Miami did make the right rotations it didn’t matter — San Antonio shot 64.7 percent on contested shots in Game 4, 61.5 percent in Game 3 (stats via the NBA’s player tracking SportsVU cameras). San Antonio just is not missing.

One thing Miami is counting on to come back is a regression to the mean — San Antonio can’t keep shooting like this, can they? No, not over a long stretch of games they couldn’t, but that’s also not what the Spurs need. They just need one more.

Miami’s problem is after 13 games between these teams since the start of last year’s Finals the Spurs have grown accustomed to and comfortable with the Heat defense — Miami tries to use their athleticism to overwhelm, force turnovers and rushed shots. The Spurs have seen it — and they saw the same tactics from Dallas and Oklahoma City these playoffs — and it doesn’t faze them anymore. Plus, an older, banged-up Miami team doesn’t dial up the same pressure it did the past couple playoffs.

In the face of that pressure the Spurs no longer lose their offensive balance and unpredictability — all five guys are live, all five guys are a threat on every play.

“Everybody’s dangerous on our team,” Boris Diaw explained. “Everybody can score at any time. It’s not like a pattern, like some times you do scouting on a team and you say ‘Who’s the head of the snake, who’s the guy who’s going to score?’ You keep them from scoring and you’re going to win the game. With us it’s a little bit different, anybody can score on any given night. You saw that during the whole regular season. One night Patty Mills is the leading scorer on our team, some times it’s Danny (Green), sometimes it’s Tony (Parker), sometimes it’s Manu (Ginobili), sometime’s it’s Tim (Duncan). It can be anyone.”

Tony Parker leads the Spurs in scoring in the Finals averaging 18.5 points a game on 50.9 percent shooting — those are not gaudy numbers. The Spurs have talent — Tim Duncan is arguably the greatest power forward ever to play the game, Kawhi Leonard is a Finals MVP favorite exploding on the scene, Manu Ginobili just keeps making plays — but they all put their ego aside for the team.

When you asked Miami players what they need to do differently you got variations of their standard answer — we just need to do what we do better. We likely will see some rotation changes — Ray Allen started the second half of Game 4 and expect he starts Game 5, we also could see some Shane Battier — but the fact is Miami’s depth is limited. Plus guys they count on to step up, Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen in particular, have not. That’s not even mentioning Dwyane Wade aging before our eyes and Chris Bosh needing to be more aggressive when he gets his chances. It’s pretty much been LeBron James against the world, and no team ever won the Larry O’Brien trophy that way. Just like no team has ever come from 3-1 down in the Finals to win.

“But you can’t start thinking about two games ahead, three games ahead, all of that,” Spoelstra said on Saturday. “It’s just about tomorrow.”

If the Heat don’t there will be a parade down the River Walk just a few tomorrows after that.

Reports: Rockets think Chris Paul could be sidelined for up to a month

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The Rockets’ opening night win over the Warriors was a boost to their confidence — they believe they can challenge the Warriors next May in the playoffs.

Chris Paul is a big part of that plan, which is why we may not see him for up to a month (even though he is listed as day-to-day, and officially only out Saturday). With that, the Rockets are considering adding another point guard to the roster. Marc Stein of the New York Times and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news Friday afternoon.

At the top of the free agent point guard list is Jameer Nelson, the veteran was just waived by Denver to make room for Richard Jefferson, and the Rockets have reached out to him. C.J. Watson and Trey Burke also are available.

Chris Paul and Harden still need to smooth out playing together, something that will take time on the court together. CP3 being out until mid-November is not ideal, but the Rockets are thinking about May, and ideally June, so they will sacrifice a few games now to have him healthy then.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.