Kurt Helin

Associated Press

Playoff Preview: Five question to answer in Miami Heat vs. Toronto Raptors

5 Comments

The last of the four second round — or, conference semi-finals if you prefer — will tip off Tuesday with two teams that had to go seven games in the first round. That means mentally tired players who had little time to prep for Game 1 — expect some sloppy play at points. Here are five things to watch that could decide the series.

1) With a series win that led to a sigh of relief throughout Canada, will the Raptors play more free and loose? Toronto was tight in its first round series, and it was obvious to everyone. Never was that more evident than the final seven minutes of Game 7, when the Raptors had a 16-point lead and got conservative with a time-killing “prevent offense” that almost squandered the entire lead and the game. Toronto hung on thanks to some slashing Kyle Lowry layups and some Pacers turnovers, but you could see how the pressure got to this team.

If the Raptors play anywhere near that tight in the next round, they are toast. Miami showed in the first round they have guys who know how to close out games — Dwyane Wade leads that charge, but those guys are up and down the roster. Miami will not wilt late in games; we don’t know if that is true of Toronto.

2) Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will have more room to operate, what will they do with it? After having Paul George (on DeRozan) and George Hill (on Lowry) draped all over them last series, the slower Heat defenders in the starting lineup will mean more room for the Raptors guards to operate. Wade, Goran Dragic, and Joe Johnson are not great defenders, the question is can the Raptors take advantage of that extra space? DeRozan will attack as he did in Game 7 against the Pacers, but he needs to be more efficient (he needed 32 shots to get 30 points in that final game). Lowry hasn’t been his All-Star level self for the last month of the season, whether due to a bad elbow (which has been drained) or something else we don’t know about. Whatever the reason, Toronto needs All-Star Lowry to win this series — and Miami did a good job making Kemba Walker work for his shots and be inefficient last round.

Two things to watch from Miami. First, how quickly will coach Erik Spoelstra go to Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson off the bench — those rookies are the best perimeter defenders the Heat have (along with Luol Deng, who will get time on DeRozan). Spoelstra will lean on them heavily in this series. Probably more and more each game. The second thing to watch is rim protection, which leads us to….

3) Can Hassan Whiteside stay out of foul trouble and on the floor protecting the rim? Lowry isn’t afraid to shoot the three and will make teams pay that give him space beyond the arc, but the core of his game is to drive and create. DeMar DeRozan avoids the three like he tries to avoid eating too much poutine in season — he wants to drive and attack. That is what the entire Raptors offense is based around.

Which is why Hassan Whiteside and his shot blocking is crucial to Miami’s chances this round — if Lowry and DeRozan drive and get shots erased or altered by Whiteside, an essential part of the Toronto attack becomes far less efficient. The challenge for Whiteside will be staying out of foul trouble — not only can DeRozan draw fouls with the best of them, but also the Raptors will post up Jonas Valanciunas and have him go at Whiteside, looking to tack on some fouls. If Whiteside can stay on the court it is a huge boost for Miami.

4) Conversely, how is Toronto going to protect the paint? Miami’s season took off after the All-Star break when Spoelstra’s hand was forced by the Chris Bosh injury and he went small with Luol Deng at the four. The result was an aggressive, attacking Heat team that gets a lot of points in the paint off drives (and in transition). When Charlotte was able to slow the pace and protect the paint with a big lineup that forced Miami to shoot jumpers, Miami struggled. Valanciunas gives the Raptors quality offense and a big body inside, but he’s not a rim protector. Miami is going to attack and the Raptors need to limit the Heat’s efficiency.

One way to do that may be more Bismack Biyombo off the bench.

5) How are Raptors going to defend Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic? The match-ups for Raptors’ coach Dwane Casey are not ideal. Expect Lowry to matchup on Dragic for much of the series, which may not go well for Miami defensively. But the bigger challenge is DeRozan needs to guard Wade, Johnson, or Deng (who had a strong offensive first round) — Miami can attack wherever he plays. Toronto’s guards also are smaller and we could see a lot of Heat post ups this series.

Prediction: Miami in six. This is not a prediction I feel strongly about, I’d say it’s about 60 percent this and 40 percent Toronto in seven — the Raptors have a real chance in this series. But I think the matcheups favor Miami slightly, Miami was the better team after the All-Star break with a better defense, and the Heat are the team I trust to close out tight games.

Your daily Kings coaching search update: Add Jeff Hornacek, Corliss Williamson to the list

Getty Images
2 Comments

Give Vlade Divac and the Kings credit for this: They said they were going to cast a wide net and interview a lot of people for their head coaching position, and he is doing just that.

Two more names popped up as guys who will get interviews — former Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, and Corliss Williamson.

Hornacek and Williamson join Mark Jackson, Luke Walton, Nate McMillan, Vinny Del Negro, Mike Woodson, Sam Mitchell, Kevin McHale, Patrick Ewing, and David Blatt as guys that the Kings have at least reached out to, if not outright interviewed.

Who is the frontrunner? We’ll see when the second round of interviews start. Someday. Divac and the Kings are in no rush, and know they need to nail this hire.

Portland’s coach Terry Stotts has no contract after this season, but that will change soon

Getty Images
2 Comments

Portland’s Terry Stotts came in second in the Coach of the Year voting after taking a Portland team expected to be in the bottom of the West to the second round of the playoffs (where they currently are facing Golden State). He’s earned a raise.

Which he will get. But once the Trail Blazers’ season ends Stotts will be a man without a contract, reports Sam Amick of the USA Today. Just don’t expect that situation to last long.

Speaking of paydays, Portland coach Terry Stotts should be due for one in the not-so-distant future. Yet Stotts, the former head coach in Atlanta and Milwaukee who came to the Blazers in 2012 after four years as a Dallas Mavericks assistant, has a team option on his contract for next season that has yet to be picked up. What’s more, according to a person with knowledge of his situation, he has yet to discuss a possible extension with Blazers management.

The person expressed optimism that a deal will eventually get done, but one never truly knows until it happens. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of that process.

As other reports have noted, just don’t expect this to last long.  For one thing, Trail Blazer players love him. Portland’s GM Neil Olshey is one of the smartest in the business, and it would be a pretty stupid move to let Stotts go, Olshey just doesn’t like to talk contracts during the season. Once it ends (likely to Golden State in the next couple weeks) a new deal will get worked out.

Stotts made $3 million this season, which was pretty close to average when he signed his deal but low now. Expect him to get a deal at around $5 million a year and maybe for five years — he has earned that security. And that raise.

Kyrie Irving had sensational block on Dennis Schroder (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

At this point the game was pretty much decided, the Cavaliers were up 11 with :50 to go, but the Hawks were not giving up. Not point guard Dennis Schroder,  who tried to use his speed to get a quick two with a layup.

Kyrie Irving shut him down.

Irving had 21 points on the night and hit some threes that the Cavaliers needed. He had a strong game.

And we may see more of this matchup, as Schroder scored 27 points and was the best Hawk player on the night, earning more run in Game 2.

Thunder get off to fast start, survive wild ending to win 98-97, even series with Spurs

Associated Press
10 Comments

When the playoffs are all over, and all the confetti has fallen at the parade celebrating the 2016 NBA champion, we are still going to be talking about this game. The Spurs and Warriors gave us everything — great shooting, leads and comebacks, and a wild, controversial ending.

What ultimately matters is the Thunder bounced back from a rough first game, were aggressive from the start and raced out to that early lead using their transition offense. Then a team that blew a lot of leads this season hung on through multiple Spurs comebacks and ultimately got a 98-97 win behind 29 points from Russell Westbrook and 28 from Kevin Durant (who played well at the four spot much of the night). The series is now tied 1-1 heading back to Oklahoma City.

All the controversy at the end doesn’t change that fact, or that the Thunder did some things much better in Game 2.

The Thunder have had moments like this throughout the season, where they defended better, got transition points, and Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter (or someone else) would step up and make plays — but they didn’t sustain that high level of play for very long. They still won 55 games because Durant and Westbrook are talented, but we will see if they can sustain a “beat the Spurs” level of play for most of the next couple weeks.

San Antonio helped out by having their offense not as sharp, and just missing shots — the Spurs started 2-of-15 from the field and finished the game shooting just 26.1 percent from three. The missed shots allowed the Thunder to get out in transition more and get the easy buckets that fuel their offense.

But that’s not what anybody is talking about, this is:

It’s those final 13 seconds, when the Spurs were down 1 and the Thunder were trying to inbound the ball, is the topic of the day. The referees swallowed their whistles to the point that a rugby scrum broke out.

The most discussed part of the play was the inbound — Dion Waiters reaches across the boundary line to shove Manu Ginobili back, which is a clear foul and a change of possessions. Ginobili had stepped on the end line, which could have been ruled a technical but was not as egregious as Waiters’ blatant foul. There were a host of other fouls in those final seconds: Kawhi Leonard grabbing Westbrook’s jersey, a Spurs fan grabbing Steven Adams when he fell out of bounds and not letting him back in the play, and Ibaka hacking LaMarcus Aldridge in the final seconds.

But that’s not what decided the game. The Spurs made a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of clean looks before that, things they needed at the end. Aldridge had 41 points, and Leonard added 12. However, Tim Duncan was 1-of-8, and Tony Parker was 3-of-9 — those guys are not the top offensive options anymore, but the Spurs need them to be efficient. The hustling Thunder defense had something to do with this, but that doesn’t change that the Spurs need more from these two key players.

The Thunder offense worked not because they shared the ball — as per usual, it happens only in spurts — but because Westbrook and Durant hit their shots, and because they got transition buckets.

If they can do that for a couple more games at home, they will be in command of this series. But it’s not going to be simple or easy.