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.

Paul George scores 28 as Thunder beat Raptors 116-109

Associated Press
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TORONTO (AP) — Paul George scored 28 points, Russell Westbrook had 18 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds, and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Toronto Raptors 116-109 on Friday night.

Dennis Schroder came off the bench to score 26 points and Jerami Grant had 19 as the Thunder snapped a four-game losing streak and avenged Wednesday’s 123-114 home defeat to Toronto.

The Thunder made 20 of 43 shots from 3-point range. Oklahoma City made a season-high 22 3-pointers against the Lakers on Jan. 17.

Kawhi Leonard scored 37 points and Pascal Siakam had 25 for the Raptors, who played without All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry.

Lowry missed his second straight game because of a sprained right ankle. Coach Nick Nurse said there’s no structural damage to Lowry’s ankle, but soreness remains following a collision with New York’s Mitchell Robinson on Monday. Nurse said Lowry is expected to return next week.

Danny Green scored 19 points and Serge Ibaka had 11 but Toronto couldn’t hold a double-digit lead in the third quarter for the second straight game. The Raptors gave away a 20-point lead before recovering to win in overtime Wednesday, but weren’t able to match that on their home court.

Oklahoma City trailed by 10 points to start the second half, and was down 13 with 5:23 to go in the third before rallying. Westbrook gave the visitors the lead for the first time since early in the first quarter on a layup with 1:18 left in the period, putting them up 80-79. The Thunder closed the third with a 20-4 run to take an 83-80 lead into the fourth.

Leonard cut the gap to 93-91 on a free throw with 7:33 to play but George hit 3-pointers on either side of a fast-break layup by Grant, giving Oklahoma City a 101-91 edge with 6:21 left.

The Thunder missed eight of their first 10 shots of the game. Toronto was 5 of 6 from 3-point range in the first, with Green making all three of his attempts, and the Raptors led 29-22 after one.

Leonard scored nine points in the second and Green had six as Toronto led 58-48 at halftime.

 

James Harden ties career best with 61, Rockets beat Spurs 111-105

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden matched his career high with 61 points, including 27 in the first quarter, to lead the Houston Rockets to a 111-105 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night.

Harden hit three straight 3-pointers to give the Rockets a 103-100 lead and scored all of Houston’s points in a 13-2 run late in the fourth quarter.

Harden topped the 50-point mark for the eighth time this season, compared with 10 such performances from the rest of the league combined. He matched his career-best total set earlier this season against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

The NBA’s leading scorer surpassed the 30-point mark in the second quarter and the 40-point mark with 9 minutes remaining in the third.

Before Harden’s late surge, the Spurs led by six points with 4 minutes left in the game. The Spurs had overcome a 15-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 81 entering the fourth quarter.

Harden was 7 of 10 from the field in the first quarter, including 3 of 4 from the 3-point line, and also went 10 for 12 from the free throw line. His 27 points in the period were the second-most in franchise history, trailing only Vernon Maxwell’s 30 in 1991.

Harden finished 9 of 13 from 3, 19 of 34 from the field and 14 of 17 from the free throw line.

Houston has won 13 of its last 15 games and eight of its last nine at home.

Bryn Forbes led San Antonio with 20 points, while Derrick White added 18 and DeMar DeRozan had 16.

Houston led 36-24 at the end of the first quarter and 62-47 at halftime.

 

LeBron James’ playoff streak ends at 13 years

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The last time LeBron James missed the playoffs, YouTube hadn’t yet launched to the public.

LeBron had reached the postseason every year since 2005, when his Cavaliers went 42-40 and finished ninth in the East – another good marker. The last time LeBron missed the playoffs, it was so long ago, an Eastern Conference team could be that good and not qualify.

But his Lakers were officially eliminated from the playoff race Friday with a loss to the Nets.

That ends LeBron’s postseason streak at 13 years – tied for the 13th-longest of all-time. Karl Malone and John Stockton hold the record, each playing in 19 straight postseasons.

Here are the longest playoff streaks of all-time:

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Obviously, LeBron joining the Western Conference put his playoff streak in greater jeopardy. And the Lakers’ fate has been known for a while.

Still, it’ll be a little jarring to watch a postseason that doesn’t include a player who ruled half the bracket for so long.

That said, LeBron might not have the longest playoff streak snapped this year. Tony Parker, who reached the playoffs in all 17 of his seasons with the Spurs, could fall short in his first season with the Hornets.

If Charlotte misses the playoffs, 76ers guard J.J. Redick is in line to hold the longest active streak at 13 years.

Here are the players with the longest active streaks that could continue this season.

Players are listed with the teams they made the postseason with during their streaks. If they haven’t reached the playoffs in their stint with their current team, that team is listed in brackets.

Players whose teams are currently in playoff position are in teal. Players whose teams are currently outside playoff position but not yet eliminated are in purple. Free agents who’d be eligible for the playoffs if they sign before the end of the regular season are in white:

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There’s no reason to believe Manu Ginobili will come out of retirement. But he has played in every postseason since missing the entire 2009 playoffs due to injury. It’s technically possible for him to play in the 2019 playoffs and keep his streak alive.

Which is more than LeBron can say.

Knicks’ fans chant “Free IT” as Isaiah Thomas sits on Nuggets bench

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Well played, Knicks fans.

Denver went into Madison Square Garden Friday night to be the latest team to defeat the Knicks. Isaiah Thomas, out of the rotation in Denver, was the only dressed player not to play for the Nuggets. That did not sit well with Knicks fans.

Denver has better on court options than IT — Monte Morris should get Most Improved Player votes — but I hope he gets fully healthy and lands somewhere next season where he gets a chance to show what he can still do.