Game of the Night: Boston holds off Miami’s late surge

5 Comments

Well, the Miami Heat won’t be going 82-0 this season. The experienced Celtics were able to handle the Heat on Tuesday night, winning by a final score of 88-80 and making the Heat look terrible at times, holding Miami to nine points in the first quarter and just 30 points in the first half. The Heat were able to threaten the Celtics late, but the 2008 champions were firmly in control for much of the game. Here are some thoughts from the season opener and Wade and James’ first official NBA game together:

1. LeBron reminded us what he is and isn’t.

LeBron James more or less picked up where he left off last season. After a very slow start, James was able to show the skills that won him the last two MVP awards, as well as some of the issues that have kept him from winning a championship. With Wade and Bosh both having horrible nights, Miami’s offense was the LeBron show.

James was unable to establish any kind of offensive rhythm against the brutally effective Boston defense that knocked him out of the playoffs last season. He couldn’t find any space on pick-and-rolls, wasn’t able to get any easy opportunities by moving without the ball, and couldn’t create a quality passing lane to save his life. LeBron finished with only three assists and eight turnovers, and it was clear that Boston’s defense wasn’t allowing him to play the way he wanted to, especially in the half-court. Some of LeBron’s turnovers occurred because his teammates weren’t ready for passes, others occurred because he tried to complete a pass that wasn’t there, and some turnovers were the product of pure carelessness. But all of them illustrated just how uncomfortable LeBron was with unfamiliar teammates and an all-too-familiar Boston defense shadowing his every move.

Even with all of that going on, James was the best player on the court for much of the game. He scored a game-high 31 points by shooting over the defense (James scored 15 points on 13 shots taken outside of the paint, and most of them were contested), simply running over his defender, or converting an open-court opportunity. It was impressive to behold, but it wasn’t enough to beat Boston in 2008, it wasn’t enough to beat Boston in last year’s playoffs, and it wasn’t enough to beat Boston on Tuesday night.

James’ three major offensive weaknesses all hurt Miami on Tuesday night. His free-throw shooting was shaky, and Miami could have used the four points LeBron left at the line late in the game. LeBron only posted up twice, and failed to get a basket both times. His shot selection remains bizarre, and he took a few of his ill-advised but predictable “heat-check” threes when he would have been better served setting up the offense.

More importantly, James’ new running mates weren’t able to take any pressure off of him. Bosh and Wade both played terribly, and LeBron never established chemistry with either of them. When that happened, James was forced to try and do everything himself, and was ultimately put in a position to be betrayed by his weaknesses. When James was off the floor, disaster struck — the Heat were outscored by nine points during the five minutes James sat. Simply put, this was not the kind of game LeBron had in mind when he decided to come to Miami.

2. Boston is in midseason form.

It’s stating the obvious, but I’ll say it anyways: Boston looked like a team that has been playing together for a lot longer than the Heat have been. Boston picked apart the Heat’s swarming defense by moving the ball from side to side, having Rajon Rondo attack the open space to open up drive and kick opportunities (Rondo had 17 assists; the Heat had 15), dumping the ball down low to exploit Joel Anthony’s lack of size, and knocking down their open threes, especially when they mattered most. Almost every shot the Celtics took was a high-percentage look; 78 of the team’s 88 points came from inside the paint, the free-throw line, or beyond the arc. That’s what an offense rolling on all cylinders looks like.

Defensively, the Celtics didn’t seem to miss either Kendrick Perkins or assistant coach and defensive wizard Tom Thibodeau; they shut down the paint, rotated on shooters, and forced 17 Heat turnovers. On Tuesday night, the Celtics looked like a team rather than a collection of talents.

3. The Heat might be a bit deeper than we think.

The less said about Wade and Bosh’s performances (a combined 7-for-27 from the floor, with seven turnovers), the better. Wade looked rusty, and Bosh just looked overwhelmed — this is the first time Wade has played more than three minutes of organized NBA basketball since April 27th, and Bosh isn’t going take over against a defense like Boston’s without James and Wade opening things up for him a bit.

The good news for Heat fans is that Miami got some solid contributions from players who weren’t expected to contribute much this season. Eddie House looked like a man possessed; he made some great defensive plays (I’m serious), was all over the court, did a decent job of handling the ball, and nailed some open threes. James Jones had two big threes that kept the Heat in the game in the fourth quarter. Zydrunas Ilgauskas did a great job on the boards, and Miami’s offense actually looked really good when they gave the ball to Ilgauskas in the high post and actually started to move without the ball. It’s obviously an absurdly small sample size, but the fact that the Heat were +17 in Ilgauskas’ 11 minutes of play may be worth noting.

James, Wade, and Bosh are going to do the heavy lifting for this team, and Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller (when he returns), are going to play major roles. However, the other seven players on the Heat roster are going to have to produce at times, and it’s going to be a major advantage for the Heat if they can trust players like House and Ilgauskas to play significant minutes.

That’s all from me on this game. Great win for the Celtics. The Heat should take some comfort in keeping the game close when they were so completely outclassed for most of the game, but this is not the way they wanted to start their season.

Jeff Van Gundy: NBA should eliminate All-Star game

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MIAMI (AP) — Jeff Van Gundy has an idea on how to fix the NBA All-Star Game.

His plan: Eliminate it.

Van Gundy, the former NBA coach and now longtime television commentator for ABC and ESPN, said what he’s seeing now from the game is embarrassing and “a bastardization of the game that is beautiful to watch.” The teams picked by captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo combined to attempt a record 167 3-pointers in Sunday night’s game – and 96 of the 134 field goals in the game came off either 3s or dunks.

“You can be a Division III player like myself and be All-Star MVP,” Van Gundy said. “All you have to do is drive in and shoot a layup.”

Van Gundy coached in the 2000 All-Star game, his Eastern Conference team falling to Phil Jackson and the Western Conference 137-126. There was no shortage of alley-oops tried in that game, though Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal spent plenty of time defending the rim against those lobs as well.

“I would name All-Stars, I would have All-Star weekend, they have all these things, introduce them … the players are great, they should be applauded,” Van Gundy said this week, while preparing to coach USA Basketball’s team picked for the final two games of qualifying for this summer’s FIBA World Cup in China. “But to take this game and shoot 160 3s, it’s an embarrassment. It’s an embarrassment.”

Van Gundy said he doesn’t need to see a game with Game 7, playoff-level intensity.

He just wants to see some effort.

“The equivalent would be like Major League Baseball, a guy hits the ball, you throw it to him at 70 mph because you’re not trying,” Van Gundy said. “And then you hit it and no one chases it and you just let a guy circle and score and you have unlimited runs. You’ve got to try.”

Players, including James and National Basketball Players Association President Chris Paul, along with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver all said after the 192-182 game two years ago that the All-Star game had to be more competitive.

“Let’s just say it: They don’t want to play,” Van Gundy said. “Adam said, `It’s got to be fixed.’ There’s nothing fixed.”

Last year went down to the wire, a 148-145 game that was well received. This year’s 178-164 game was won by James’ Team LeBron, which trailed by 20 points in the second half before rallying – largely behind the 3-pointer. James’ team took 65 shots in the second half, and 49 of those were 3-point tries.

And players this year didn’t seem to mind the way the game unfolded.

“It’s just about having fun,” Oklahoma City’s Paul George said Sunday night. “At the end of the day, it’s for the fans. It’s just to have fun.”

Pelicans to play Anthony Davis against Pacers tomorrow

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
2 Comments

The Pelicans clearly don’t want to play Anthony Davis anymore. Some members of the organization reportedly even thought the team would no longer do it.

But Davis said he wants to play, and the NBA reportedly threatened to fine New Orleans if he didn’t play.

So, the player and league are winning out.

Scott Kushner of The Advocate:

After playing at the Pacers on Friday and hosting the Lakers on Saturday, New Orleans has two straight nationally televised games – vs. the 76ers on Monday and at the Lakers on Wednesday. Once those nationally televised games are behind them, that might be the time for the Pelicans to revisit the issue.

This remains a complex situation. Davis is an excellent player, and it’d be a black mark for the league if he’s a healthy scratch for the rest of the season. But New Orleans should also have a right to protect its asset – especially because Davis decided he no longer wanted to be there. If he suffers serious injury that lowers his trade value, it’d be a catastrophe.

We might not see another showdown like this with a player of Davis’ caliber and a trade-request complication. But until the NBA addresses tanking, we’ll continue to see different versions of this problem.

Tanking tension central to Anthony Davis drama

AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman
5 Comments

NBA teams collectively play 2,460 games each season.

Too few of those games matter.

A few weeks ago, Anthony Davis decided it was no longer worth trying to accomplish his goals with the Pelicans. His trade request derailed New Orleans’ season, and there has been only more difficulty since the team kept him past the trade deadline. Davis has faced immense criticism for making his trade request in-season rather than waiting until the summer.

But teams frequently make a similar determination – that it’s no longer worth trying to accomplish their season goals – well before the season ends.

The most common form of tanking is a team entering the season with playoff aspirations, losing more than hoped then pivoting into more-intended losing down the stretch. Those teams reduce playing time for better veterans and turn toward younger players less-equipped to win presently. Future seasons become the priority well before the current season ends.

The Davis situation is just a version of that.

It might be a long time until a player as good as Davis requests a trade, let alone during a season. But unless the NBA addresses its draft system, there will continue to be weeks of miserable games in the second half of seasons.

The league can try to force teams to play good players. The league can change lottery odds. The league can even pressure teams to oust executives who push tanking to the extreme.

But problems will remain as long as draft positioning is tied to inverse standings. The incentive to lose might be reduced, but it’s still way stronger than the incentive to win extra games late in a losing season.

What do the Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers, Bulls and Hawks have to play for the rest of the season? Winning a few extra games won’t change perception of those teams or draw a significant number of fans. But extra wins would reduce those teams’ odds of drafting a franchise-changer.

The Pelicans face a similar situation. They want to escape the season with Davis healthy and his trade value fully intact. They want a higher draft pick. They care less about winning down the stretch.

The script is flipped because Davis put them into this position. If he hadn’t requested a trade, New Orleans would likely be making a longshot playoff pursuit.

But the result is the same – many remaining games the team doesn’t care about winning or even actively prefers to lose.

There have been numerous suggestions, some even two extreme for me.

The Wheel has been the most popular of those. Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren’s proposal gives each team a pick in each segment of the draft in a rotating basis over a multi-year period. The draft order is completely decoupled from record. Each team is on identical footing for the draft.

But I think losing teams should get a leg up in the draft. The NBA is trying to engage all its fanbases. Winning comes with the joy of winning. Losing comes with hope. If losing teams didn’t have the upside of a higher draft pick, their fans would completely lose interest.

A shorter schedule would compact the standings and delay losing teams’ decisions to punt the season. But that’s a non-starter. Nobody is surrendering revenue by eliminating games. Besides, a longer season benefits fans, especially those who are the fringe of being able to afford tickets. A higher supply of games drives down ticket prices.

The NBA is threatening to fine teams for sitting healthy players. But that policy is far too arbitrary for me. Davis obviously draws league scrutiny. But what about Enes Kanter with the Knicks? What about Eric Bledsoe with the Suns in 2017? I prefer clear lines then allowing teams to operate within them.

My general suggestion: Give teams one lottery combination for each loss until they’re eliminated from the playoff race then, thereafter, one lottery combination for each win. Only non-playoff teams get put in the lottery.

There are plenty of ways to tweak it. Maybe teams should get more lottery combinations for the early losses or late wins. Maybe something needs to be done about conference disparity changing when teams are eliminated. How many teams to draw in the lottery and how many to slot and in what order must be determined.

But the general outcome would be awarding higher draft picks to bad teams – especially those that compete to the end of the season.

The NBA would be healthier if teams cared about winning more games.

Winning their remaining games this season is no longer the Pelicans’ priority. They want to protect their most valuable trade asset and improve draft position. Davis’ trade request obviously makes this a unique situation.

But plenty of teams annually sit their top players late in losing seasons without those players first requesting a trade. The problem runs much wider than Davis and New Orleans.

What to watch after All-Star break: Playoff races, LeBron James passing Michael Jordan and more

Harry How/Getty Images
3 Comments

MIAMI (AP) — Golden State is still the favorite for a fourth title in five years.

Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana, Boston, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Denver, can all go ahead and cancel those mid-April vacation plans if they were foolish enough to have made them in the first place.

For LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, some work awaits them.

The All-Star break ends Thursday, with about one-third of the season remaining for most clubs – and that means the playoff push now gets very serious. Nobody has officially clinched a spot yet, though it would take a highly improbable series of events for the current top teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences to miss the postseason.

“Every year is a new challenge, different circumstances,” Golden State guard Stephen Curry said. “We are motivated. We understand what’s at stake.”

James has been to the NBA Finals in each of the last eight seasons, all out of the East – four with Miami, four with Cleveland. His Los Angeles Lakers currently are 10th in the West, three games behind the Clippers for the final playoff berth.

James has been to the playoffs in 13 consecutive seasons.

“I hope that first off, we all get healthy,” Lakers President Magic Johnson said. “This has been one of the worst seasons I’ve ever been around Laker basketball as far as injuries are concerned. When we were healthy, we were in fourth place. Now we’re like 10th place. But when you’ve got LeBron James, anything is possible.”

The Miami Heat are part of a six-team, three-spot race in the East, and Wade is hoping for one last postseason trip out of his 16th and final season. Heat President Pat Riley said he thinks the way the Heat ended its pre-All-Star schedule – with a 2-3 road trip, though one where Miami could have won four of the games – is a good sign.

“It looks as though there’s something happening here,” Riley said.

Sacramento is right in the race to end the NBA’s longest current playoff drought; the Kings haven’t been to the postseason since 2006. Phoenix’s drought will hit nine straight seasons, but Orlando – currently holders of the third-longest drought at six seasons – hit the break with a five-game winning streak and is in the East mix.

“I think we feel good about ourselves,” Magic All-Star forward Nikola Vucevic said. “I know we have good confidence.”

Here’s some other things to know going into the final third of the season:

LEBRON AND MICHAEL

LeBron James is finally going to pass Michael Jordan.

In scoring, at least.

While the debate will rage forever about which player is better, James will soon have scored more points than Jordan. James is 211 points shy of passing Jordan (32,292) for the No. 4 spot in NBA history. When he gets there, each of the top four spots on that list will be occupied by current or former Los Angeles Lakers – No. 1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,392), No. 2 Karl Malone (36,928), No. 3 Kobe Bryant (33,643), and James.

SCORING AND PACE

Unless every team drastically changes the way it plays over the next two months – which won’t happen – the league will finish this season with its highest scoring average and fastest pace in 30 years.

Teams are averaging 110.7 points and 100 possessions per game this season. That’s the best scoring number since 1984-85 (110.8 points per game) and fastest pace since 1988-89 (100.6 possessions per game).

All 30 teams are on pace to average at least 100 points per game this season. The last time every team in the league averaged 100 was 1986-87, when the NBA had 23 franchises.

3’S ARE WILD

The NBA is on pace to see records in 3-pointers made and 3-pointers attempted. If that sounds like an annual statement, it is: This will be the seventh consecutive season where both marks fall.

Houston’s James Harden has a shot at the record for 3s in a single season. He has 274 (which would be fifth-best for a season already), putting him on pace for 401 if he plays in all 25 of the Rockets’ remaining games. Golden State’s Stephen Curry holds the mark with 402 makes from deep in 2015-16.

Harden seems like a lock for the 3s-taken record – Curry took 886 in his record-setting year, Harden has 733 now and is on pace for 1,072.

MORE HARDEN

The Houston All-Star is in the throes of a historic offensive season.

Harden’s current scoring average – 36.6 points per game – would be eighth-best all-time, and the best mark since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points in 1986-87. Jordan (once), Elgin Baylor (once) and Wilt Chamberlain (five times) are the only players to finish a season with a higher average than the one Harden is toting now.

Harden leads Oklahoma City’s Paul George by 7.9 points per game in this year’s scoring race. That is an enormous number. To put that in perspective: If George stays at his current scoring rate, 28.7 per game, Harden would remain the NBA’s scoring leader even if he went scoreless in each of his next 14 games.

GOOD BUCKS

Already with 43 wins this season, it’s already safe to say this the best year for Milwaukee in a long time.

The Bucks won 44 games last season, and 46 in 2009-10. This will almost certainly be Milwaukee’s first 50-win year since 2000-01 (52-30), and the Bucks could flirt with their first 60-win year since 1980-81. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer says he joined Milwaukee at the perfect time.

“The fans there, the energy in our arena, it’s off the charts,” Budenholzer said. “New practice facility, a roster that’s in a great place, ownership, front office – everything is just really, really set up to have great success.”

BAD KNICKS

David Fizdale, the very likable and highly respected first-year Knicks coach is overseeing a team that’s on pace for 16 wins – which would be the worst record in franchise history. Obviously, it’s all about the draft and free agency for the Knicks, who are in position to be major players when the NBA’s annual superstar-shopping window opens on July 1.

Phoenix is also on pace to have its worst season ever. Chicago and Cleveland probably won’t hit all-time rock bottom, but look like they’ll come close. In all, four teams will likely finish the season with a winning percentage under .250 – the most since six teams were that bad in the 1997-98 season.

The draft lottery is May 14, and that’s when the Knicks, Suns, Bulls and Cavaliers could declare this season’s suffering worthwhile.