Heat have best defensive game of season, rout Spurs

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Since the first day of training camp — really, from the first day Miami’s triad of stars aligned — it’s been about the Heat defense. That was the question, the answer would determine how far they could go.

Ten days ago, the Spurs beat the Heat by 30 when Miami’s defense couldn’t stop the Spurs at the arc or in the paint. Miami looked overmatched, like a team destined for second-round trouble in the playoffs.

Monday night, the Heat showed the kind of defense that can make them a threat in May and June. They bodied Tim Duncan off his spots in the post, they hung with the Spurs shooters at the arc, they controlled the paint. Miami dominated this game from the start and won 110-80.

Miami showed a contender-level defender for a night, led by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (each had two blocked shots). The Heat defense has been good all season (ranked fifth in points allowed per possession), but they took it to another level for a night against the team that will finish the season with the best record in the NBA. Can they do it consistently is the question.

Miami was the aggressor from the outset and that showed up in who was getting to the free throw line — early in the third quarter Chris Bosh had twice as many free throw attempts as the entire Spurs team. No, Spurs fans, that was not on the refs, the aggressor gets the calls in the NBA and the Heat were the aggressors.

Bosh finished with 30 points, Wade had 29 and LeBron an inefficient 21 (on 19 shots, it was not his best offensive night. The Heat continues to take steps that get them moving, like breaking out the occasional James/Wade pick and roll. The James/Bosh pick-and-pop also is working well.

Bosh was really the force — he has started to demand the ball more and when he did in the second quarter is when the Heat really took charge and made it a runaway. He did it against the Spurs subs, who were the ones seeming overwhelmed this night. One other thing the Heat have stopped experimenting with is the smaller lineups, where LeBron is the four. They have gone back to trying to be big. It’s working.

When the Spurs are getting blown out and it is clear they will not make a comeback, they roll the tents up early, something Timothy Varner of the Spurs blog 48 Minutes of Hell noticed before and was certainly true tonight. This is a veteran team that will cede the big loss to save energy for future fights and the playoffs.

But they got a good smackdown by the Lakers recently and lost to the Sixers. The Spurs are not playing their best ball, but that could just be the foot coming off the gas a little as they await the playoffs. San Antonio still has a six-game cushion for the best record in the NBA over Boston and Chicago. Nobody in the West is catching them. They can coast a little. If that’s all this is with the Spurs, than it is nothing to worry about.

Monday’s game was not about the Spurs, though. It’s about the Heat, about them getting their footing, finding their way heading toward the playoffs. Finding their defense. Because if they really find that the rest of the NBA should be nervous.

Report: Jimmy Butler won’t ‘coddle’ Markelle Fultz

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Jimmy Butler showed little patience for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns with the Timberwolves. To Butler, Wiggins didn’t work hard enough and Towns was too soft. Butler wasn’t afraid to admonish his teammates for their shortcomings, either. I believe Butler intended good, lighting fires under Wiggins and Towns that would drive them to greatness with the same intensity he used to rise. But Butler actually just alienated them.

Now, Butler joins the 76ers, who have another former No. 1 pick not meeting expectations – Markelle Fultz. Butler already praised Fultz’s work ethic and noted how much he respects that.

But how will Butler actually treat Fultz?

Undisputed:

If this is someone who knows how Butler treated Towns and Wiggins and is just assuming how Butler will treat Fultz, this is worthless. Anyone who knows even a little about Butler could make that guess.

But if this is someone who spoke to Butler about Fultz specifically, this would carry massive significance.

Fultz is unique. He shot well in college then had his form completely fall apart before his rookie year. He doesn’t need tough love. He needs someone to help him assess the underlying trauma beneath his problems. He needs to be built up and develop confidence.

That wasn’t at all Butler’s approach with other teammates. Maybe Butler will adjust to Fultz’s atypical circumstances. I hope he does.

But the possibility of Butler worsening Fultz’s issues can’t be overlooked.

Scouts’ take: Jimmy Butler will help Philadelphia most at end of games

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Jimmy Butler will be in the starting lineup for the Sixers Wednesday night in Orlando.

Butler is an elite two-way player, a top 10 NBA talent. Where will his game help the Sixers most? Defense is the first thing that comes to mind: Having Butler and Ben Simmons assigned to the two-best perimeter players of the opposition, with Joel Embiid backing them up, has the potential to be lock-down. Philadelphia already has a top-10 defense this season and this trade could make them exponentially better.

But scouts Brian Windhorst of ESPN spoke with had another interesting opinion: Butler helps Philly at the end of games because he wants the ball.

The 76ers have struggled to score late in close games at times, a function of their primary ball handler, Ben Simmons, being a suspect shooter. They were out-executed by the Boston Celtics in crunch time during the playoffs last season. Joel Embiid is off to a fantastic start to the season, but he’s shooting just 35 percent in clutch time this season because it can be hard for the big man to create a shot when the defense is set up to deny him.

Butler leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring this season and has a long history of shot-making in winning time.

“He brings something to Philly that they just don’t have, which is an experienced playmaker who can demand the ball and demand attention. That probably will make it easier on the rest of their guys,” one scout said. “JJ Redick can do that a bit, but he can’t create like Jimmy. It’s one of the rarest things in the NBA. From that standpoint, they hit a home run in this deal. There just aren’t many players like that available.”

That theory likely will not be put to the test by the Magic on Wednesday night.

It makes sense on paper, though. Embiid is not going to create his own shot without a play design to help out (and he’d be doubled quickly in the post), and with Simmons the defense is going to lay back and cut off driving lanes. Butler changes the late game dynamic.

It’s going to be interesting to watch this new big three in Philly meld, and to see if they’re willing to make the sacrifices needed to fulfill the potential of this roster.

Minnesota owner: “I think we saw Jimmy had an agenda and we had to work around that”

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Coach and team president Tom Thibodeau rightfully deserves a lot of the blame for how the Jimmy Butler situation played out — and dragged out — in Minnesota. Thibs believed he could win with this core, as they had done the season before, and that winning would cure a lot of ills. Instead, the Timberwolves are 4-9 to start the season.

However, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor has to take some of the blame here, too. He didn’t come in and force Thibodeau to make a decision — when he could have had a better deal (in my opinion) with Miami for Josh Richardson, the Heat’s 2019 No. 1 pick and Dion Waiters as cap filler — but dragged it out and had to settle with the Sixers. After another few weeks of drama.

Taylor sat down with Chris Hine of the Star-Tribune to talk about how it all went down.

“It just appeared that they weren’t working together as a team or as a unit the way that they should’ve. I can’t exactly answer why,” Taylor said. “The only thing that was different that we had was Jimmy’s position of leaving the team. Maybe that was affecting guys more than they even knew themselves.”

Taylor was non-committal on Thibodeau’s status, saying he would be evaluated as things went along. Around the league, few believe Thibodeau will keep his job long after this season ends.

In the deep West, that 4-9 start is going to make getting into the playoffs difficult. One thing to watch for the rest of this season: with Butler gone does Karl-Anthony Towns get back to playing like an All-NBA player and take control of this team? They heed him to.

Jimmy Butler in starting lineup, Markelle Fultz out Wednesday for Philadelphia

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Already the presence of Jimmy Butler is shaking up the Sixers rotations.

The starting lineup for Philadelphia in Orlando Wednesday night was confirmed by coach Brett Brown at shootaround: Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Wilson Chandler, Joel Embiid.

The change bumps Markelle Fultz out of the starting lineup for the first time this season. And that’s a good thing. He’s looked better — or, at least, less bad — for stretches the ball in his hands creating off the pick-and-roll, but when starting with Simmons and Embiid he had to work off the ball a lot more. Leading a second unit is just a better fit for him, and he can attack downhill getting to the rim. It’s a fit as much as anything is a fit with Fultz right now.

The new starting five should be lock-down defensively (especially with the soft first game against Orlando, the third worst offense in the NBA this season). With two strong on-ball perimeter defenders in Simmons and Butler, with Embiid backing them up protecting the rim, the Sixers should be able to slow down any team’s wing/guard production (and in a playoff series that defense can be a matchup nightmare for opponents).

Offensively, the Sixers really need Chandler to step up and knock down threes and space the floor, because the Sixers do not have enough shooting. They also lack depth. General manager Elton Brand has some work to do to round out this roster, and he knows it.

There is a real excitement in the air around the Sixers now. And there should be.