Kurt Helin

Miami Heat Media Day

Pat Riley: Heat have “all of the elements of a championship team”

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It was the first of our “51 Questions” NBA season preview series:

Who is the second-best team in the Eastern Conference?

You better have the Miami Heat on your list of potentials (our on Sean Highkin picked them in our post). With a starting lineup of Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh, and Hassan Whiteside — and guys like Justise Winslow and Josh McRoberts coming off the bench — this is a very dangerous team if they come together.

The Big Kahuna for the Heat, Pat Riley, thinks this team is better than just the second best in the East — he thinks they can make a run at the Cavaliers. That’s what he said on the Dan Le Batard Show, as transcribed by Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.

“I think this team has all of the elements of a championship team,” he said. “Whether or not you can ever win a championship will depend on a number of factors. I can list them and you can list them. It’s going to come down to this, health,… performance and this guy and that guy. It’s going to come down to can you make shots?…

“I think this team has the opportunity and the possibilities of being a contender. That’s where you start with a team like this. We have an opportunity to create a new first. That’s how I feel about this team…. I’m excited about this season.”

I think Riley hit the nail on the head when he said “health.” Of course, saying “health is key” is true for every team that fancies itself a contender, but the Heat have more reasons to make you cautious. Dragic has battled injuries, Bosh and McRoberts missed most of last season due to injuries, and describing Wade’s knees issues as “chronic” is like saying Guy Fieri is just “annoying.” It’s more than that.

If everything comes together for the Heat — and they have the depth to keep guys’ minutes under control — the Heat could be the second best team in the East.

But they are only contenders if LeBron James and the Cavaliers stumble. There’s still a talent gap in the East from the top spot to everyone else.

Turkey defeats Germany, Serbia advances with win at Eurobasket

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BERLIN (AP) — Turkey got off to a blazing start and defeated host Germany 80-75 on Tuesday for its second victory at the European basketball championship.

Germany never recovered from a disastrous first quarter that left it trailing by 20 points as Turkey made 11 of 13 field goal attempts.

Dennis Schroeder, who scored 14 of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter, brought Germany within seven in the final quarter but Turkey held on for a victory that improves its chances of advancing to the knockout stage. Turkey is now 2-1, while Germany fell to 1-2 in the tough Group B.

Earlier, Serbia made sure of advancing by beating Iceland 93-64.

Dirk Nowitzki scored 15 points for Germany but did not play particularly well and sat out most of the final quarter. He made two free throws for the final score.

Supported by a vocal and what looked like a majority Turkish crowd in the arena, Turkey led by as many 21 and was paced by 17 points from Cedi Osman. Center Semih Erden added 16 points and nine rebounds in a big game. Ersan Ilyasova contributed 15. Ilyasova had nine points in the key first quarter.

Ali Muhammed, an American-born guard who was better known as Bobby Dixon until recently becoming a Turkish citizen, also had 15 points, to go with five assists and five rebounds.

All 12 Serbian players got on the score sheet against the speedy but undersized newcomers.

Nemanja Nedovic had 12 points for Serbia, center Miroslav Raduljica added 13, Nikola Kalinic had 12 and Ognjen Kuzmic, another center, had 11 points on 100 percent shooting from the field. He only missed one of four free throws. The World Cup silver medalists also dominated inside.

“We were very concentrated because you must not underestimate such a team as Iceland,” Raduljica said. “It’s a very atypical team, they all shoot 3s. It was tougher playing them than the result shows.”

Nedovic said Iceland is tricky to play against. “Sometimes it was tougher than in previous matches, we needed time to adjust to their game.”

Logi Gunnarsson led winless Iceland with a game-high 18 points.

Serbia improved to 3-0 in the tough Group B.

In Group C in Zagreb, Croatia, Greece beat winless Georgia 79-68 to go 3-0 and will also advance. Nick Calathes had 19 points and eight assists for Greece.

Slovenia beat the Netherlands 81-74 for its second win in three games. The Dutch are 1-2.

Klemen Prepelic led Slovenia with 16 points, including four consecutive free throws down the stretch.

Zoran Dragic had 13 points, six rebounds and five assists. Dragic’s 3-pointer made it 75-70 with less than two minutes remaining. Robin Smeulders, who finished with 14 points, then made a jumper, before Dragic followed with a lay-up. Charlon Kloof made two free throws, before Prepelic took over.

Kloof led all scorers with 24, but also had a costly turnover that led to Prepelic’s final free throws.

51 Questions: Can Toronto transition to a defensive-minded team?

Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors- Game Two
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51 Questions in 51 Days. PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

CAN THE TORONTO RAPTORS TRANSITION TO A DEFENSE-FIRST TEAM AND ADVANCE PAST FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS?

For two straight seasons, the Toronto Raptors have finished atop the Atlantic Division. Last season, they won 49 games, the year before 48 — the two highest win totals in franchise history. That is something to celebrate.

Then, for two straight seasons, they have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Last season, they were unceremoniously swept out of the postseason by the Washington Wizards — the porous Raptors defense was destroyed in the pick-and-roll by a John Wall and Bradley Beal led Wizard’s attack that averaged 110.3 points a game. It wasn’t pretty, and it prompted changes.

This past summer, Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri made only a handful of moves, but they had a very specific goal — return Toronto to being a good defensive team. Yes return, two seasons ago they finished ninth in defensive rating. Last season, the Raptors took huge steps backward and finished 23rd. Their perimeter defenders recognized and reacted to plays about as well as traffic cones, and Jonas Valanciunas was hanging back to protect the rim and not doing it well. The team seemed to take on Lou Williams‘ offense first (and second, and third) style, and that needed to change.

Three specific moves show what Ujiri was thinking:

• Signing DeMarre Carroll. This was a direct move to address the Raptors perimeter defense, Carroll is one of the better “3&D” guys in the league. Carroll was central to the Hawks surge to 60 wins last season, and this was a great signing for Toronto. He is going to be asked to step into Terrence Ross‘ lineup spot but actually get some stops (Ross will slide into the Lou Williams “gunner off the bench” role).

• Signing Bismack Biyombo. This is about having some rim protection at the center spot — if Valanciunas isn’t going to provide it, they are going to get it somewhere else. Biyombo will come off the bench as a defensive big.

• Signing Cory Joseph. He brings one thing to the table, and it’s not playmaking. Joseph is a good defensive point guard and the Raptors needed to add that.

The hope is that Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Valanciunas (a gifted offensive big man) can keep the Raptors racking up enough points while everyone else helps play some defense. The belief is if they defend well enough they can be a threat to the Wizards, Bulls, Hawks, and Heat in the second tier of the Eastern Conference — and they can make the second round of the playoffs (at least).

If you believe Toronto is going to take that step forward, you must have faith in two things.

First is coach Dwane Casey. Ujiri inherited him and since the day the new GM took over there has been speculation about the coach, but there has been no change (in fact he got an extension). Casey is well respected around the league and seen as a defensive coach — he has got to get a system in place that this team can execute.

After watching a chunk of Raptors defensive film from last season, Toronto seemed to play a system looking to have their big man hedge out on pick-and-rolls to cut off the drive (not “ICE” it as is the NBA trend). However, that system counts on a big man who has the foot speed to step out and recover, and wing players who instantly recognize what going on and rotate quickly to cover ball movement. The Raptors had neither. Valanciunas prefers to sit back, he didn’t hedge much meaning opposing guards/wings got to play downhill and drive right into the lane (the Raptors were bottom 10 in shots allowed within five feet). From there things fell apart. The recognition by the other wing defenders to help — or help the helper — was often slow (especially when DeMar DeRozan sat or was injured). Guys like Ross, Valanciunas, and Patrick Patterson got killed on defending spot ups because they did not get their quick enough to contest. Teams got a lot of good look floaters inside or open threes.

The second is Valanciunas — the guy who just signed a $64 million extension is the hinge to the entire Raptors season.

The Raptors need him on the court, he is too valuable offensively to sit for extended periods. This is guy who had a 62.3 true shooting percentage last season, is strong around the rim plus you have to respect him from the midrange, a guy who averaged 12 points a game last season with a usage rate of just 19 percent. They need to get him the rock more. But that is not the end of the floor that is in question.

The perimeter defense from Toronto is going to be better, but in a league where you can’t go Gary Payton and hand check/body up guys on the perimeter point guards (and others) are going to drive the lane. Valanciunas has to improve defensively — he has to handle pick-and-roll defense better (whatever the system); more importantly he needs to be more aggressive and just better at being a paint and rim protector. He’s not going to suddenly become Dikembe Mutombo, but he has to be respectable on that end and force some misses. Last season, he played so far back guys had a full head of steam coming off the pick and had him backpedaling and being ineffective.

The Raptors are going to win the Atlantic Division again this season (which says as much about the rest of the sad Atlantic Division as it does Toronto). They are going to be better defensively.

But if the Raptors are going to be good enough on that end to make it to the second round for only the second time ever in franchise history, it’s going to be a little about Carroll and a lot about Valanciunas.

My prediction: They are better on defense, win about 49 games, and get bounced in the first round again. But with an improved defense, they have a chance to advance.

Top 10 blocks of soon-to-be Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo’s career

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This weekend, Dikembe Mutombo enters the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

He was a better offensive player than people remember, and he was strong on the boards. But none of that is why he is going into the Hall.  The four-time Defensive Player of the Year is going in because of his ability to get stops. And block shots.

We can argue if there have been better shot blockers in the league, but none have been as much fun as Mutombo. So savor this Top 10.

Rudy Gobert rejects Marcin Gortat during key French win over Poland at EuroBasket

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It may not have been the most dramatic, but the showdown between unbeaten France and Poland at EuroBasket Monday was the key game of the day in Group A — two undefeated team and the winner is in the drivers’ seat to win the group.

It started with history — Tony Parker became the all-time leading scorer in EuroBasket history with France’s first bucket of the game.

Once again Jazz big man Rudy Gobert was making some plays — he had eight points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots. One of those you can see above — it’s not easy to reject Poland/Wizards big man Marcin Gortat.

France held a small but relatively steady lead most of the second half, but they were never comfortable, and Poland made a push. It wasn’t enough, Les Blues were able to make enough plays to get the 69-66 win. One of the guys making those plays? Gobert.