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.

Are plans for a play-in tournament just to get Zion Williamson in the bubble?

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The cleanest, most straightforward, fewest extra people in the “bubble” way for the NBA to return to play is to invite the 16 teams already in the playoffs — eight from each conference — and skip right to the postseason.

However, there is a lot of momentum around the league for a play-in tournament with 20 teams (or more). Specifically, one that brings in the four teams in the West clumped three-and-a-half to four games behind Memphis for the last playoff spot (Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio).

Why those teams? Because they had a real chance to catch the Grizzlies if play had not stopped?

Or, is it because the league wants Zion Williamson — its bright young star who spiked ratings and interest when he returned from injury mid-season — in the bubble? On ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, Brian Windhorst said some other teams seem to think the play-in plan is all about Williamson.

“Let me just say how do you get to 20 [teams in the bubble] though? Because if you just go by the straight records, because to me, this is what I’ve already heard, alright. I’ve already heard people in this league say this is an elaborate game to get Zion Williamson into this bubble…

“I’m not saying the NBA is going this route, I’m just saying I’ve already heard this scenario that no matter what happens, the cutoff line will be the Pelicans. They’ll be in.”

Windhorst is very well connected and I don’t know who his sources were for this, but if you’re with the Wizards or Hornets (or maybe even Bulls and Knicks), you would push for the nine and 10 seed in each conference to be in the bubble, not the next four best records (which are all in the West).

The NBA is a star-based league, of course getting its hottest new property into more televised games is a discussion taking place. You’d be naive to think otherwise. Whether Zion and the Pelicans end up in Orlando ultimately is another question.

All the lobbying and leaking of restart plans to the media — and even the pronouncements of Damian Lillard saying he will play if there’s no shot at the postseason — are spin. This is teams lobbying for what is best for them and their chances. Elite teams like the Lakers and Bucks want no part of a soccer-style group stage that is more likely to produce upsets, they want something more traditional. The Bucks are no fans of 1-16 seedings because then they would have to go through both the Clippers and Lakers to win it all (while the Lakers should love that plan, it sets up perfectly for LeBron James and company). Teams back different play-in plans that better lineup for them. It’s all politicking.

This Friday, in a conference call with owners, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is going to lay out a series of return-to-play options. A week or two after that, the owners will get on a conference call again and vote. Until then, everyone is going to lobby for their own self-interest.

That restart likely has teams reporting to Orlando for training camps in mid-July with games starting in late July or early August. How long the season runs depends on the format chosen. Next season almost certainly will start around Christmas (or maybe a week or two earlier, at most).

When a retired Michael Jordan showed up, dominated a Warriors practice

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It was the winter of 1995, major league baseball was on strike and Michael Jordan — at that time still a member of the Chicago White Sox organization — refused to be a scab and cross the picket lines.

“Mike was thinking about coming back (to the NBA), he was getting that itch again, it was a lockout in baseball, and he just wanted to play some basketball,” NBA legend Tim Hardaway told NBC Sports.

The Last Dance documentary covered how Jordan was secretly taking part in Bulls’ practices at that time. What it didn’t cover was the time Jordan flew out to California to see his friend, Rod Higgins (a Warriors assistant coach), and absolutely dominated a Warriors practice.

“It was kind of embarrassing for a guy to take that many months off then to come into our practice and dominate the way he did,” Hardaway said. “But of course, he’s MJ.”

Warriors players tell the story on The Sports Uncovered podcast, which launched today by NBC and takes a unique look at some of the most significant moments in sports. Like Jordan saying, “I’m back.” You can listen to the podcast below or download it at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your pods.

Jordan was always looking for a test, and the Warriors at the time provided one: Hardaway was one of the game’s great scorers (but was still coming off a torn ACL) and trash talkers, and Golden State had the game’s “it” up-and-coming player in Latrell Sprewell.

Hardaway takes the story from there.

“[Jordan] and [then Warriors assistant coach] Rod Higgins are really good friends, he just came to visit Rod and said, ‘Hey, Rod, you think [Don Nelson] would let me just come to practice and with y’all?’ And Rod asked him and coach was like, ‘s ***, why not, of course.’

“He just wanted to see where he was at, where his skills was at — and of course they was still there. The same skills, without much rust, that he left with. He was practicing with us, and I came up and was egging him on, ‘Let’s see what you got, s***, let’s see it.’ He said, ‘Alright, now, I’m still MJ.’ And I was like, ‘You had guys throwing balls at you, you been out two years, I heard you been shooting around but this here, this is the real deal now, you got to come and lace your s*** up.”

“It was him, Rony Seikaly, Chris Mullin, some other point guard, against me, Sprewell, some other guys, and man, we was playing for like two hours, and I wanted to go some more because he was bustin’ our a**. He wouldn’t let Sprewell dribble the ball at all — he kinda knew exactly what Sprewell could do, what he couldn’t do, his weaknesses and his strengths.

“It was like he never missed a beat, man. He was out there shooting fadeaways, dunking, playing defense, getting through screens, denying, jumping through passing lanes. It was a little rust, of course, but once he got going each game he got stronger and stronger, his timing got better, you could just tell. He was kinda tired at the end, but it was something to see.”

Hardaway, always the competitor, didn’t want to stop.

“I was kinda upset because I think his team took it more seriously than our team,” Hardaway said. “But he came in and put on a show in practice…

“He said ‘I can play all night, but you all have a game tomorrow and I don’t want to wear you out.’ I was not playing that much anyway so I wanted to get as much run as I can.”

Find out more about that legendary practice, and Jordan’s return, on The Sports Uncovered podcast.

 

NBA veteran Jason Terry takes job as assistant coach at Arizona

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Jason Terry played four years for the legendary Lute Olsen at Arizona, winning a national championship in 1997 and averaging 21.9 points a game his senior year. The Jet went on from there to play 19 years in the NBA, winning a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009, and he was part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team.

Terry had moved into the front office side of the business and was serving as the assistant GM of the Texas Legends, Dallas’ G-League affiliate. Now, however, he is jumping back to his alma mater, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This is a smart hire by Arizona and head coach Sean Miller. High schoolers going to a major D-1 school all have NBA dreams and having a respected NBA veteran who can say “this is what it takes” on staff is a big plus. Besides, Terry was a smart player who knows the game and had a mentality suited to coaching.

For Terry, he’s back in a place he likes, he’s young (42) and has a world of options ahead of him.

Scott Foster says it’s going to be different officiating without fans in building

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The noise from 18,000 people can cover up a lot of sounds in an NBA arena. So when a back-bench assistant coach yells “bulls****” after a call he doesn’t like, the official never hears it and the game moves on.

Not when NBA games restart in fan-less facilities in Orlando in a couple of months. Without those fans, referees are going to get to hear that coach. And a whole lot more.

It’s going to be weird for referees in Orlando, just like for players, veteran official Scott Foster said recently on NBA TV.

I know I don’t want everything that we normally say to each other going out. But normally we’re all in a professional manner out there. But it is going to be different. There’s going to be some assistant coaches that we haven’t really heard from before sitting in the second row that we’ll be able to hear now, so there’s going to be some adjustment there. And then I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.

But it’s definitely going to be a different thing. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience for the referees, players, coaches, everybody who’s going to go through this.”

It is going to be unique. Everybody is going to hear everything, and that is going to be very different from most nights when coaches have to go to hand signals because it’s too loud just to call out a play. It’s going to lead to some awkward and tense moments.

Everyone is going to have to adjust to the new reality, and that includes the referees, too.