The implications of Heat-Celtics III

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For the first time this season, the Miami Heat will face the Boston Celtics with a better record.  But in the third meeting between the two best teams in the East, the Heat will need a significant amount of progress across all fronts in order to come away with their first victory over the Celtics. The first two meetings between the two were comfortable Celtic victories, even as LeBron James made things slightly interesting down the stretch. The Heat would make a run, then the Celtics would execute for a few sustained possessions and put the game out of reach again. Those losses could easily be described as the worst and most damaging losses for the Heat.

Which is why this game matters so much more to Wade, James, and company than it does to the defending Eastern Conference champs. The Celtics are short-handed, with Delonte West, Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, and Marquis Daniels all questionable-to-out for the game. Furthermore, the C’s have already made their point this season. They’ve proven they can be or are the best team in the East, arguably in the entire league, and have victories over every elite team, plus the two wins over the Heat. For Boston, winning this game is a cherry on top. It’s just frosting. At this point Boston’s biggest concern is making sure they don’t suffer any more injuries.

So why does this feel like the Heat are still facing an uphill struggle? Besides the obvious elements like the existence of Rajon Rondo and the Heat’s pitiful lack of depth, the biggest gap in the first two games between the two star-studded behemoths wasn’t on the X’s and O’s side. It was mental, and emotional. The Celtics were zoned in, playing with intensity. Even if they acted as if they were smacking down a younger brother who dared act like he was on their level, the Celtics understood the message they wanted to send. The Heat have a lot of talent, and they wanted to show they were that much better because they are a complete team. They wanted to win that game. It’s been pretty easy to spot the difference in the Celtics this season when they try and when they don’t; the Celtics wanted those first two games.

On the other hand, the Heat sleepwalked through that game. They seemed to have no intensity, no fire, no cohesion, and most of all, no sense of urgency. This was a team in its first year together, trying to prove itself, trying to find its identity, against the Eastern Conference champs who had ousted both Wade and James in last season’s playoffs, and who are the most smack-talking-est smack talkers who ever talked smack this decade. And yet the Heat seemed listless, lifeless, and without any real sense of purpose. If that’s missing again when the two take the floor for their third of four match-ups, the Celtics will take the season series in a cake walk, and many will go from penciling in the Celtics over the Heat to tracing that over in black ink.

Sure, the Heat will need Mario Chalmers to at least not embarrass himself, for Joel Anthony and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to play with some measure of physicality, and for Chris Bosh to try not to create the world’s largest eye-roll from fans worldwide. But in reality, the best way to beat the Celtics is for LeBron James to play as he has for the last month, and to combine that with some emotional leadership. James has been transcendent, even by his standards, over the beginning of this calendar year. Going 1-on-5 against the Celtics doesn’t work, but James can hurt them even with their precise doubles and help defense, if he’s engaged. But that’s always the question with James. Will have commit to the intensity needed to topple even an injured Celtics team, or will he defer and settle for mid-range jumpers again? He and Dwyane Wade make up the most devastating two-man combo in the league. Will they get out in transition or simply let the Celtics wear them down with how they constantly seem to be back on the break, eventually forcing you to settle into a halfcourt game, which favors their style?

This is a big game for the Heat. There’s just no getting around it. There’s nothing to be won; a victory only means that people will even more loudly proclaim “Doesn’t mean a thing ’till spring!” But there is a lot to be lost. The season series against the Celtics, the confidence that they’ve finally turned a corner on their early season lackadaisical approach to big games, and an opportunity to showcase that no, for real, this team has found itself and while 72-10 is out the door, they can still bust heads.

Every run to greatness has its moments founded in the regular season. A big step awaits the Heat. We know the Celtics will be ready. But will Miami?

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.

Under new anti-tampering rules, Adam Silver empowered to suspend execs, take away picks, void contracts

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LeBron James publicly courted Anthony Davis. Many free agents seemingly struck deals before free agency even began. Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly sought prohibited extra benefits from teams.

The NBA finally reached its breaking point on tampering and circumvention.

After late apprehension, the league will enact stricter enforcement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m not surprised this passed unanimously. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted this to happen and wasn’t going to have owners vote unless he knew it’d pass. At that point, any protest-voting owners would just put themselves at odds with the commissioner. Not worth it.

We’ll see how long this crackdown lasts. I think that anonymous general manager represents many. If nobody is tampering, it’s fine not to tamper. But if some teams tamper, nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

This could slowly creep back toward the old status quo. But if there’s a clear violator early, Silver will have an opportunity to send a message. We’ll see whether he takes it.

This should be less about which communication is or isn’t allowed. It’s about fairness.

That’s why it’s important the NBA has rules it will enforce and only rules it will enforce. That hasn’t been the case. If it is now, this will be a success.