NBA Playoffs: Wade leads Heat to Game 1 victory

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The Miami Heat aren’t the most complete team in the championship hunt. They don’t have a reliable starting center or point guard. They don’t have a deep rotation. They don’t have a lot of guys who can create their own shots. However, the Heat do have a stingy defense, players who can make open shots, and two of the best players in basketball. On Sunday, that was enough for them to hand the reigning Eastern Conference champions their first loss of the 2011 playoffs.

Dwyane Wade was the story of Game 1. Wade struggled mightily against the Celtics during the regular season, but he picked up right where he left off in the 2010 playoffs on Sunday afternoon. Every part of Wade’s game was working perfectly. Wade’s often-unreliable jumper was deadly all game long; he made five of his nine mid-range jumpers and two of his five threes, including a dagger three shortly after Paul Pierce’s ejection that put the Heat up 16 with six minutes left to play. Wade also attacked the basket aggressively, and was effective on dribble-drives, off-ball cuts, and in transition. Wade was also active on defense, and finished the game with three steals and two blocks. Wade allowed Ray Allen to get the few inches of space he needs a couple times, but that just proved he was mortal. This was a masterpiece of a performance from Wade, who finished with 38 points.

Only two other Heat players scored in double digits. One of them was LeBron James, who had a good all-around game even though he “only” recorded 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. The Celtics were able to take away LeBron’s drives to the rim in half-court situations, which they have often been able to do throughout the years. LeBron didn’t get frustrated, and was still able to contribute by facilitating, grabbing rebounds, working in the post, making big plays on defense, and hitting some jumpers at key moments. LeBron didn’t need to do everything for his team to get the win over the Celtics, which is why he came to Miami in the first place.

The third Heat player to score in double figures was James Jones, who was absolutely crucial. Jones contributed 25 points off the bench, making five of his seven three-point attempts and all 10 of his free throw attempts. Jones kept the floor spaced for James and Wade by draining catch-and-shoot threes, which came off of dribble-penetration and the Heat’s “Hawk” sets designed to free him up off two off-ball screens. He was also able to play his usual brand of good positional defense, and was able to get into Paul Pierce’s head in the fourth quarter by being physical. Given how ineffective the banged-up Mike Miller has been all season, it’s hard not to wonder where the Heat would be without James Jones.

The Heat didn’t get much production outside of those three players. Joel Anthony continued to prove that he’s one of the most valuable defensive players in the playoffs, but he didn’t make a field goal. Zydrunas Ilgauskas continued to look like a complete liability. Mike Bibby made one three, but that was pretty much it. Mario Chalmers provided some energy, but also had a few glaring mental lapses. Chris Bosh managed to play Kevin Garnett to a stalemate, but the Heat would probably like to see their All-Star forward do more offensively.

Fortunately for the Heat, the Celtics’ offense was completely unable to punish the Heat’s lack of offensive depth. The Celtics made threes early and often, firing with abandon in semi-transition and making 12 of their 24 three-point attempts. Apart from that, they had few answers for the Heat’s swarming defense.

Rajon Rondo was unable to push the break, and was completely invisible in half-court situations. Kevin Garnett got few touches in the post, and his normally automatic catch-and-shoot jumper failed to find the net. Paul Pierce made some shots early in the clock, but couldn’t do much against LeBron James when the Celtics had to find some set offense, and lost his composure before being ejected in the fourth quarter. Even a dialed-in Ray Allen wasn’t enough for the Celtics to have any consistent offensive success. Worst of all, the Celtics were sloppy with the ball, which is an unforgivable sin when playing the Heat; Miami scored 23 points on 14 Boston turnovers.

Performances like the one Wade had are ones the Celtics are simply going to have to live with. Great players like Wade are going to have great games, especially when they’re hitting their jump shots. What they can control is their offensive execution. If Boston wants to leave Miami with a win, they will have to push the break more effectively and get better looks in the half-court. If Miami’s defense is good enough for them to need only one of their “Big Three” to be rolling on all cylinders, this will be a very long series for the Celtics.

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Why are Lakers saving their young core? Reportedly to chase Anthony Davis.

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Anthony Davis is the target at the top of the Lakers’ wish list.

He’s also at the top of the wish list for the Boston Celtics and about 27 other teams, too. But if Davis is put on the trade block — something that is not likely until this summer, New Orleans is working to keep him — the Lakers and Celtics will be at the front of the line.

Which is why, when reports that the Lakers would not include any of their young core in a trade for Trevor Ariza came out, it fit with the Lakers’ long-term thinking. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN discussed this on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“Here’s the line [the Lakers] have to walk: they’re not going to give away picks and their top young players in some deal that makes them incrementally better this season because they have to save all those assets for Anthony Davis, a big trade this summer either pre or post free agency…

“The absolute dream scenario, people talk about (how) they can trade for Anthony Davis or sign a free agent. The dream scenario is they do both.”

The dream is to sign Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant and get Davis, and while that dream may be a long shot the only chance they have is if they still have their core players to throw in a package.

The larger point also is valid — the Lakers are not going to beat the Warriors come the playoffs this season (assuming the Warriors are healthy) and L.A. should keep its powder dry for bigger battles. And Davis will be the biggest of battles.

New Orleans wants to keep Davis, they are actively trying to be buyers at the trade deadline, not sellers. Sources have told me the Pelicans’ plan is to win as much as possible this season and show Davis they are serious, then come July 1 offer Davis a designated veteran contract extension worth $230 million (or a little more, depending upon the cap). It’s roughly $40 million more than any other team can offer guaranteed. If Davis and his agent Rich Paul — the same agent as LeBron James — turn down that contract then the Pelicans will be forced to consider a trade.

If we get to that point, then all bets are off and the Lakers are all in. Until then, the Lakers are wise just to be patient.

Despite fast start in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard reportedly still eyeing return to Los Angeles

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The Toronto Raptors are making their case to Kawhi Leonard this season — Toronto is 23-8, in first place in the East by 2.5 games, and look like a real threat to make the NBA Finals. Leonard, averaging 26.2 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, is a guy who has returned to the MVP conversation.

Still, the Raptors don’t know if he’s staying, or what he’s thinking, because Leonard doesn’t talk about it in a meaningful way.

“It’s been good so far,” Leonard told NBC Sports of the fit in Toronto. “Like I said, we’ve been winning, everyone’s playing well. Can’t complain.”

Nothing he’s done has slowed the speculation and buzz about what Leonard will do as a free agent next summer… which Leonard is working to ignore.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before the Raptors faced the Clippers last week. “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

A lot of the speculation around the league has remained that Leonard is headed back to Los Angeles next summer, most likely with the Clippers. Here is what Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on a special trade season preview broadcast Saturday morning (transcription via Real GM).

“They can’t change the geography. They can’t change the weather in Toronto. Those were always be things against them in this,” said Adrian Wojnarowski. “Home and L.A. has been the focus for Kawhi Leonard through all of this.”

“Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said about the weather. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.”

Clippers president Lawrence Frank and other Clippers executives have been a fixture at Raptors games this season, doing their part to recruit him early. They are going to make a strong play for him. So will the Lakers, although I have heard from multiple sources he’s not likely to play with LeBron and in that spotlight.

Nobody knows what Leonard will do next summer, or even what he’s thinking. Leonard doesn’t speak much, and when he does it’s in cautious cliches providing little if any insight. As long as that is the case, the speculation will continue.

Why didn’t Lakers trade for Trevor Ariza? Suns owner reportedly blocked it.

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There were eight teams (that we know of) having some level of contact with Phoenix about getting in on a Trevor Ariza trade. The Lakers were one and — as with all things Lakers — were the most talked about.

But the Lakers were never going to pull off that trade because the Suns’ owner, Robert Sarver, didn’t want it to happen, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Sarver — a very hands-on owner when it comes to basketball decisions — is probably still stung by buying out Tyson Chandler and watching him go to the Lakers and dramatically helping their defense (the Lakers are allowing less than a point per possession when Chandler is on the court). And certainly spiting the Lakers will play well with the Suns’ fan base.

However, the best franchises put aside petty thinking and do what’s best for them. If the Lakers had made the best offer (and we don’t know if it was) then take it. If it makes the Lakers better this season, or even the next few seasons, so what? If you’re the Suns, you’re in a rebuilding process and should be focused on the long term.

That said, the Laker trade was always going to be complicated and hard to pull off, LeBron James wasn’t going to be able to call up Suns GM James Jones and make this one happen. The Lakers wanted to land Ariza but also wanted to send out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and KCP doesn’t fit with what the Suns wanted (a point guard and young players or draft assets). That means a third team was going to have to get involved, maybe Philadelphia, and possibly even a fourth. The Lakers were not going to trade any of their four core young players, making this trade even harder.

What the Suns got in the trade with Washington was what they wanted: A point guard (Austin Rivers, who is not all that good, as evidenced by his 7.1 PER this season, but is better than anyone the Suns have) and a young wing in Kelly Oubre who fits on the timeline of Devin Booker and the other young Suns. Phoenix did reasonably well in this trade.

Could they have done better? Doesn’t matter, if the owner is shooting down an idea then it’s dead. That’s his prerogative.

Kings’ rookie Marvin Bagley III out 10-14 days with left knee bone bruise

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The No. 2 pick in last June’s draft, Marvin Bagley III is having a solid season. He’s averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game coming off the bench. He’s got a good 59.2 true shooting percentage and the 6’11” big man gets most of his buckets at the rim or at least in the paint although he can hit threes when he steps out there (taking one a game but hitting 35.7 percent). He’s lost on defense, as most rookies are, but there is some potential there.

The Kings are going to have to get by without him for the next 10 to 14 days due to a bone bruise in his left knee, the team announced Friday night.

The injury happened in the second quarter of Friday night’s Sacramento loss to Golden State, when Bagley was battling for a rebound and landed awkwardly. He got a bucket out of it because he was “cherry-picking” after not being able to run back down the court, but he waved to the coaches and asked out after scoring. Bagley left the game, had to be helped to the locker room and did not return.

With Bagley out expect to see a lot more Justin Jackson. Harry Giles III has been out of the rotation of late but he could potentially get a little run, too.