How they can win it all: The Miami Heat

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Forget the narrative. Forget the plot that turned LeBron James into a villain for changing zip codes, forget the half-baked media criticism without warrant, and forget the lazy reactions to Miami’s relative struggles at various points in the season. This Heat team is positively fantastic, and though they don’t come to the playoffs without flaws, they also have a legitimate chance of marching through the Sixers, the Celtics, and the Bulls all the way to the NBA Finals. The Heat aren’t just that talented, they’re that good. So ditch the narrative baggage for now; it’ll be waiting for you to pick it up on the other side, and it’d be a shame for a good story to get in the way of even better basketball. Here are the reasons why the Heat, after a long season under the microscope, can win the whole damn thing:

1. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade

Let’s get the easy one out of the way first: the playoffs are the time for the NBA’s best players to do their thing, and the Heat are packing more star power than every other team in the league. Given Miami’s probable opponents the rest of the way, it’s likely that the Heat will have the two best players on the floor in every game during their postseason run. That doesn’t guarantee them any wins, but it certainly gives them an incredible advantage in attempting to earn them. Miami may lack consistent scoring on its periphery, but perhaps the Heat’s lack of productive balance will matter even less in the postseason; James and Wade are tremendous players who contribute a ton on both ends of the court, and when we throw in Chris Bosh for good measure, they’re as tough an out as there is in the league.

2. Smothering defense

The defensive tone starts with James and Wade, but the Heat on the whole have been one of the top defensive teams in the NBA this season. However, the internet highlight factory has led to a general misunderstanding of the way Miami Ds up; even though James and Wade are adept at jumping passing lanes to ignite a potent fast break, the Heat just don’t create all that many turnovers. Instead, the Heat regulars force their opponents into difficult looks and contest shots heavily without fouling. The Miami defense is quick and flexible, which empowers them to recover and challenge, even when an opponent claims a position of advantage. The Heat are quick to help in order to completely swarm opponents, and have one of the most oppressive half-court defenses in the league as a result.

Additionally, the Heat are among the best defensive rebounding teams in basketball. Chris Bosh, Erick Dampier, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas all do good work on the defensive glass, but the key for Miami is the board work of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Mike Miller, all of whom are stellar rebounders for their positions. All in all, the Heat grind opponents into the ground by challenging every shot, and then clean the glass to ensure that the only shot opponents get is their initial, heavily contested one. Most championship runs are founded on the ability to execute consistently on defense, and Erik Spoelstra has his team prepared to suffocate their playoff opponents.

3. Efficient offense

As good as the Heat are on defense, they’ve been even more effective on the offensive end; Miami scored more points per possession than all but two other teams this season.

The key to Miami’s offense is the allocation of shots to the most efficient players and the most efficient zones on the floor. James, Wade, and Bosh take a lion’s share of the Heat’s shot attempts, and thus score a lion’s share of the points. That only makes sense considering that all three players can create quality shots, shoot around 50 percent from the field in the process, and are capable of drawing a ton of fouls to boost their productivity. Miami posted the third highest free throw rate in the league this season almost entirely because of their three stars, and those frequent trips to the line provide a reliable source of efficient scoring.

Beyond James, Wade, and Bosh, Miami’s role players rely heavily on the most efficient shots in basketball. Erick Dampier and Joel Anthony attempt layups, dunks, and put-backs almost exclusively. Mike Miller, James Jones, and Mike Bibby shoot mostly open three-pointers. The only players really forcing the issue are those capable of balancing their efforts with high efficiency, and the Heat have been incredibly productive as a result. Miami’s offense may not be as fluid as some would like, but the offensive production speaks for itself and will continue to do so throughout the postseason.

Report: Nuggets might consider Bones Hyland trade for defensive help

Denver Nuggets v Milwaukee Bucks
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A year ago, it felt like the Nuggets had found their long-term backup point guard in rookie Bones Hyland, a guy who could be part of the rotation when Jamal Murray returned. Except, in his second season, Hyland hasn’t taken a step forward — although his play has been better and more aggressive in recent weeks — and free agent Bruce Brown has shown he can play some backup one (even if he is more of a combo guard).

That has the Nuggets considering trading Hyland if they can get defensive help, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports.

After his name was discussed in trade conversations around last June’s NBA Draft, Denver begun gauging the trade value of second-year guard Bones Hyland, sources said…. While Hyland has two years remaining on his rookie deal, in anticipation of Brown’s next payday [Note: He is expected to opt out and test the market], plus Hyland’s upcoming second contract, has the tax-conscious Nuggets considering their options in the backcourt. Occasional clashes between Hyland and head coach Michael Malone’s old-school mentality have also been a factor in Denver’s trade dialogue, sources said.

In exchange for Hyland, the Nuggets have expressed an interest in defensive-minded frontcourt players, sources said, and will search for a player plus a first-round pick.

Brown has played his way to a bigger contract than the $6.8 million player option he has for next season, but the Nuggets are already big spenders and not looking to go deep into the tax (Nikola Jokic’s extension kicks in next season at about $46.9 million a year to start, and both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will make north of $33 million next season). It is possible the Nuggets let Brown walk and keep Hyland, still on his rookie contract and set to make $2.3 million next season, partly for financial reasons. Hyland is averaging 12.4 points per game and shooting 38.5% from 3, but he struggles defensively (which is where the clashes with Malone come in).

Denver has a chance to win the West this season and defense is what will decide if that happens — if the Nuggets can land another wing/forward defender, they may jump at it and worry about the backup one spot next summer. However, finding that player in a high-priced seller’s market may prove the biggest challenge — several teams are looking for that same kind of defensive help.

Report: Trail Blazers trying to extend Grant (with no luck), open to trade of Hart, Nurkic

Portland Trail Blazers v San Antonio Spurs
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The Trail Blazers maxed out Damian Lillard last summer and promised to try and build a contender in the West around him. It hasn’t worked out that way, the Trail Blazers are 23-25 and sitting 12th in the West with a bottom-10 defense.

Which has pushed them to be possible sellers at the trade deadline — but not with Jerami Grant, who they are trying to extend, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports. Grant, however, can get more from Portland as a free agent.

Jerami Grant became eligible for a contract extension with the Trail Blazers earlier this month, and Portland has offered the athletic forward his maximum possible deal of four years, $112 million, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Grant has not accepted the offer, sources said, largely because the Blazers can extend him a larger contract with an additional fifth year once free agency begins June 30.

While Fischer notes that this summer the Trail Blazers could max out Grant (five years, $233 million) he’s not getting that contract either. Maybe the middle ground is in the five-year, $160 million range, but whatever the number is Grant isn’t looking to bolt the Pacific Northwest. Look what he told Jason Quick of The Athletic:

“I definitely like it here; love it here,’’ Grant said. “The guys have been very welcoming, it’s definitely a family environment, everybody is super cool, got good guys on the team, great organization — Joe, Chauncey, everything. I’m definitely enjoying it here…

“I ain’t really plan on leaving,” he said.

Two players who could be leaving — via trade — are Josh Hart and Jusuf Nurkic. They are drawing interest as Portland considers shaking things up, Fischer reports.

Portland has given rival teams the impression that it is open to discussing the majority of its players, particularly Josh Hart and Jusuf Nurkic, sources said, as the franchise remains committed to building a playoff contender around Lillard. Portland has engaged teams with an eye toward size with athleticism, plus wing-shooting defenders, sources said. Hart has become one of the buzzier names among league executives this week, as he’s expected to decline a $12.9 million player option for the 2023-24 season.

Hart is a front-office favorite around the league — at least on his old contract — and is seen as a versatile role player who has become a plus defender, can hit some 3s (33% from deep this season but 37.3% last season), and can put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. He could fit in a lot of teams’ rotation, there will be interest, but with him on an expiring contract, the offers will not be high.

Nurkic, who signed a four-year $70 million contract last summer, is averaging 14.1 points per game, is shooting 38.5% from 3 and is grabbing 9.7 boards a night. He’s also averaging a career-high 2.6 turnovers a night (one of the culprits of the Blazers’ sometimes sloppy play), and while not a negative defender has not been the kind of anchor the Blazers hoped for this season.

Portland needs to do something. Lillard has returned from injury to play at an All-NBA level — even dropping a 60-spot the other night — but even after all their summer moves this is the same old Portland team with not enough around Lillard to threaten the top teams in the West.

Watch Curry score 35, help Warriors pull away in fourth to beat Raptors

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Stephen Curry had 35 points and 11 assists, and the Golden State Warriors beat the Toronto Raptors 129-117 on Friday night.

The high-scoring affair was close until the Warriors pulled away with a 31-point fourth quarter, securing a sweep in the season series.

“It feels like we took better care of the ball tonight,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “When Steph plays like that, the whole game opens up. The whole floor opens up.”

Klay Thompson added 29 points, knocking down six 3-pointers despite beginning the night 0 for 5 from beyond the arc. Though Thompson played in the Warriors’ 126-110 victory in Toronto on Dec. 18, the game Friday was his first time facing the Raptors at home since he tore his ACL in his left knee in the deciding Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals won by Toronto in Oakland.

Kevon Looney returned to the starting lineup and had 12 points and eight boards as six Warriors players scored in double figures.

The Warriors have won consecutive home games after dropping four straight at the Chase Center.

“We’ve been teetering on either side of .500 for a very long time. I’m kind of sick of it at this point,” Curry said. “(We’ve) got to figure out how to keep moving in the right direction and stack wins no matter how we can get ’em.”

Golden State’s bench outscored Toronto’s 39-26, highlighted by 15 points from Jonathan Kuminga. The 20-year-old missed his first three shots from deep before making four straight 3s in the final three minutes of the third quarter, giving the Warriors a 98-94 lead they did not relinquish.

“He just showed another element to his game that some might have doubted,” Thompson said. “To get on the hot streak he did was very impressive, and for that man, the sky’s the limit for his talent.”

Donte DiVincenzo had a career-high 11 assists and the Warriors outscored the Raptors by 24 points in his 33 minutes off the bench.

“We knew what we were coming up against, and we’ve had fairly good success guarding and executing, and tonight we just didn’t do it,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “We missed a lot of communication, we just got beat physically.”

Fred VanVleet had 28 points and 10 assists for the Raptors, who began their season-high, seven-game road trip 1-1. Scottie Barnes had 24 points and Pascal Siakam had 21, while Gary Trent Jr. added 17.

Precious Achiuwa contributed 17 points and 11 rebounds off the bench.

LeBron, Grizzlies, NBA world reacts to death of Tyre Nichols

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves
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Hours after the excruciating video of Memphis police fatally beating Tyre Nichols was released, the Memphis Grizzlies chose not to open their locker room and not speak to the media about it — it was too raw, too painful.

“The senseless loss of life for Tyre Nichols has really hit us hard,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said pregame in an interview with local broadcast partner Bally Sports (via the Associated Press). “It’s been tough being on the road, not being home. I wish I could extend my arms through this camera right now to the family. They’re going through a lot.”

The Grizzlies weren’t the only ones who felt that way around the NBA, emotions were high around the league Friday (as they were around the nation). Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, Minnesota and Milwaukee released states echoing what the Grizzlies said.

LeBron James used his platform to make a statement, as he has in the past.

Statements were released from the NBA, WNBA, players, the players union and more.

“This is just crazy,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said unprompted to open his press conference, discussing the video and incident.

Nichols, 29, was pulled over in a traffic stop by Memphis police officers on Jan. 7 and was beaten to death by five officers. The bodycam footage shows Nichols being brutally beaten as he calls out for his mother and is defenseless. Nichols died in the hospital three days later. The five officers involved have been fired and charged with second-degree murder.