NBA Playoff Preview: Miami vs. Philadelphia

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SEASON RECORDS

Heat:  58-24 (No. 2 seed)
76ers: 41-41  (No. 7 seed)

SEASON SERIES

Miami swept the season series, winning all three contests by an average of just over 10 points per game. If there’s a bright side for the Sixers, it’s that two of the three meetings came very early in the season, before the team really started to jell and show improvement under Doug Collins.

KEY INJURIES

Heat: Udonis Haslem is unlikely to be ready for the start of the playoffs, as he’s still recovering from a torn ligament in his left foot that he suffered back in November. He’s been seen on the court getting some practice work in, but Miami isn’t in any hurry to rush him back.

Mike Miller has been playing through a sprained thumb, which he aggravated in Monday’s win over the Hawks. He sprained his ankle in the second half of that one as well, but should be ready for Game 1.

76ers: Lou Williams missed the team’s last five regular season games with a hamstring injury, but the good news is that he did go through practice on Tuesday and should be ready to go on Saturday.

Andre Iguodala was held out of the team’s last two regular season games to give his right knee tendinitis a chance to calm down, but he is also expected back for Game 1.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Heat: Offense: 109.3 (3rd), Defense: 100.8 (5th)

76ers: Offense: 104.1 (17th), Defense: 102.5 (10th)

THREE KEY HEAT:

LeBron James: The two-time defending league MVP won’t get a third this year, but that’s more due to a lack of interest from the voters than his own production. James has been as good as ever this season, learning to work alongside another legitimate superstar while still producing at an average of almost 27 points per game, along with over seven rebounds and seven assists.

Dwyane Wade: In a manner similar to James, Wade has done just fine adjusting to the presence of another ball-dominant superstar. While his assists are down almost two per game thanks to James initiating his fair share of possessions, Wade has increased his rebounding by almost that same margin. And, he’s been able to increase his activity on the defensive end of the floor, which has led to Miami emerging as the league’s most dangerous team in transition when Wade and James are leading the break.

Mike Bibby: Sure, Chris Bosh is the third name that automatically comes to mind when discussing this Miami Heat team. But the Sixers rely heavily on the guard spot to provide scoring and to initiate things for others, and are deep at the position with Jrue Holiday and Williams. Bibby’s more-than-questionable defense will be put to the test in Round 1 of the playoffs.

THREE KEY SIXERS:

Andre Iguodala: The Sixers need Iguodala to gain some semblance of the star performer we saw glimpses of last season. Doug Collins has done an excellent job molding the Sixers into a cohesive unit, but they need a star-level performance out of someone to have a chance against this loaded Heat team, and Iguodala can be that guy.

Elton Brand: The team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Brand must exert himself and impact the game down low for the Sixers. Miami plays excellent team defense, but if Brand can score regularly when he gets his chances, that will help immensely in opening things up for the talented Philadelphia guards.

Lou Williams: The health of Williams can’t be overstated in terms of the Sixers’ chances in this series. He provides consistent and steady scoring off the bench at the guard spot in relatively limited minutes, and is vital to the offensive success of a team that at times has trouble putting up points.

OUTLOOK

The Heat have been the season’s biggest ongoing storyline, and that isn’t likely to change once the postseason begins. The Big Three of Wade, James, and Bosh accounted for a combined average of 70.9 points per game, and they’re going to need to continue that level of production — as well as get their teammates to step it up a notch — if their success is to continue in the playoffs.

That’s the challenge for the Sixers, and it appears to be a monumental one. Philadelphia can defend, and will likely be able to keep Miami in check on the offensive end of the floor. But scoring will be an issue for them, and they’ll need huge, sustained performances from Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes, and Thaddeus Young inside to get easy baskets down low when the Heat extend their defense on the perimeter. They’ll also need Williams and Iguodala to play through their recent injuries to 100 percent of their capabilities if the Sixers are to steal a game or two in this series, but we won’t know if that’s possible until we get a glimpse of the team in the first game of the series.

PREDICTION

Unfortunately for the Sixers, this is close to a perfect matchup for the untested Heat as they open the postseason. Not a ton of size inside, and perimeter players that are more than solid, but who are no match for the likes of James and Wade.

The bottom line is that Philadelphia finished the season as just a .500 team in the watered-down Eastern Conference, and it will show in this series. Doug Collins may be able to squeeze one win out of his team, but probably nothing more than that. It might be a sweep, but Miami may slip up in one of the games, simply due to a letdown of intensity once the team realizes how much of a foregone conclusion this series actually is.

Heat in five.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.

Suns GM: ‘Overwhelming likelihood’ team keeps No. 1 pick

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It takes a rare kind of courage, an extraordinary level of organizational backing, and a special kind of draft to do what Danny Ainge did a year ago trading the No. 1 pick. While a consensus had formed around Markelle Fultz as the best player in the draft, Ainge was a Jayson Tatum guy. Doubts about the top pick are common, but that alone is far from enough to trade that pick away — most GMs don’t have the job security to know if they miss on moving the pick and sliding down they will not be let go. Ainge had that, and he had his confidence in his scouting, so he made the move to trade the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia. (While it looks good now for Ainge, it’s too early to judge how that pick plays out — Fultz has barely played, we don’t know what extra pick the Celtics will get out of this, it takes time to fully judge these kinds of moves.)

This year is different. DeAndre Ayton is more of a clear No. 1, a guy with franchise changing potential. Plus Suns’ GM Ryan McDonough may not be standing on the kind of bedrock that allows for the trade of a No. 1 pick.

Recently McDonough said he’d listen to trade offers for the pick. That’s very different from trading it, as Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic had the GM saying Friday.

Because they should do their due diligence, the Suns will look at Luka Doncic (who does have a relationship with new coach Igor Kokoskov) and Marvin Bagley III, among others. Rumors may leak, spun by agents or other teams. However, at the end of the day, good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks Phoenix will not take Ayton — who attended college in Arizona — to be the inside to Devin Booker‘s outside. It’s the smart play.

Kokoskov and the Suns have a lot of work to do to build a foundation for success with this franchise. However, that almost never starts by trading away the top pick in the draft.

Rumor: Paul George’s agent telling people client will re-sign with Thunder

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That rumor Paul George will leave the Thunder?

How about the exact opposite?

Dean Blevins of News 9:

Allegedly, apparently, Paul George plans to stay with the Thunder. I know. It’s not what people believe. But in separate conversations, I’m told P.G.’s agent has told people associated with the NBA that P.G. believes the injury loss of Andre Roberson was huge and he’s staying. Disclaimer, though: Believing everything that agents allegedly say can be dangerous to your health.

This, by Blevins’ own admission, isn’t the staunchest reporting. Nonetheless, I appreciate him sharing and contextualizing it. We can evaluate it for what it’s worth.

George is known to share his plans – though the previous example was him planning to sign with the Lakers. And he might have really believed it at the time, when he was still with the Pacers.

But throughout the season, George seemingly went out of his way to profess his affection for Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder. That only raised expectations in Oklahoma City of George staying, and if he leaves after doing that, he’d be inviting even more backlash. I think he’s smart enough to understand that, which is why I thought he made those especially strong pro-Thunder comments only after deciding he’d likely stay.

On the other hand, even if my assessment was correct, conditions change. The Jazz brutally exposed Oklahoma City’s flaws, and if George re-signs and Anthony opts in, the Thunder will have minimal cap flexibility to upgrade the roster. In fact, they might take a step back with the supporting cast to keep the luxury-tax bill manageable. George could see free agency as his chance to escape that mess.

Roberson was a huge loss, and if George is focused on that, that would bode well for Oklahoma City. Though Roberson was just a role player, he was pivotal to the Thunder’s defense. And his teammates had learned how to play around his offensive shortcomings. Oklahoma City didn’t have any good replacements for him on the roster. Roberson getting healthy is the clearest way for the Thunder to improve next season.

Of course, that’s predicated on George returning, too. Will he?

One last note of caution: People often believe what they want to hear. It’s easy to see someone in Oklahoma City hearing George bemoan the loss of Roberson and elevate that to George planning to re-sign, even George wasn’t going that far.