NBA Playoffs: Can Bulls find answers to Heat’s questions?

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LeBron James didn’t really get going as a scorer (holding him to 22 points is keeping them in check). Same with Dwyane Wade who had just 17 points. The Bulls grabbed 32.5 percent of their missed shots for offensive rebounds. The Bulls limited the Heat’s transition points. Carlos Boozer put up 26 points with 17 boards.

A lot of things went right for the Bulls — and they still lost 96-85. They now trail 2-1 to the Heat.

If all those things to right and they lose, what does it take for them to win? Game 3 felt like the Heat starting to take control of the series.

The battle of the power forwards — Chris Bosh outscoring and outplaying Boozer — will be the big storyline. And that mattered. Bosh dropped 34 and was key in the second and fourth quarters.

But that was part of a larger issue for the Bulls — the Heat’s schemes and matchups are asking questions of the Bulls they seem to have no answers for. Like where is the second scorer for the Bulls? And if all three of Miami’s top three get going, does it matter? Sure, the Bulls are only one game down in this series. But can they find enough answers to those questions to win three of the next four games? Because that is what it will take to advance.

The most important of those questions is who will score if Derrick Rose can’t? Rose is facing hard double teams, walls of players when he attacks the rim, and the result has been forcing someone else to score. During the regular season he was relentless and just found a way to get it done, that’s why he is MVP. But in the playoffs he needs help.

“It always comes down to your three primary scorers,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said in a postgame press conference on NBA TV. “You have to try to make it hard on those three. That’s the case with every team.”

The Heat didn’t make it hard on Boozer, who was the secondary scorer for the Bulls with his 26 points on 19 shots in Game 3.

But that came with a cost — Boozer is not a good defender and his primary assignment with Bosh. And Bosh went off. He had room to operate early and got his confidence, then by the end was spinning into the middle off a poorly-positioned Boozer for crowd-pleasing dunks. Taj Gibson off the bench is a better defender than Boozer and Gibson brings some offense, but this is one of the challenges Thibodeau and the Bulls face — do you sit a hot scorer for more defense? The Bulls face the same issue at the two with Ronnie Brewer or Kyle Korver. Off the bench

Erik Spoelstra doesn’t face that offense-for-defense issue — Bosh, LeBron, Wade all are good at both ends. It makes the Heat that much more difficult.

The other issue the Bulls face is who is their third scorer? Luol Deng? He can shoot and dropped 14 in this one, but is he steady enough and really a big enough threat?

This game had an interesting twist in the Bulls offense, — when the double came to Rose he slid the ball to Joakim Noah near the free throw line. Then when the defense came at Noah he made some nifty passes to Boozer and others, leading to Noah having six assists on the night. But by the fourth quarter the Heat had adjusted and they didn’t send anyone to Noah — they dared him to beat them with a jumper or on the drive. Neither worked, and the Bulls offense struggled. It is easier to make the Bulls struggle.

Meanwhile, the Heat found their offensive groove. Their third scorer is a former All-Star in Bosh who can do a lot of damage (as he has in tow of the three games this series). The Bulls couldn’t stop the Heat once they got going — in the last three quarters the Heat shot 60 percent (second), 50 percent (third) and 56 percent (fourth). The Heat are getting their points against the best defense in the league.

The Heat also are getting enough rebounds, with Wade leading the team with nine. They are causing problems with their pressure defense. They are taking control of the game.

The series is far from over. But those are a lot of areas for the Bulls to fix, and not with easy answers. Bosh may well not shoot as well next game, but James and Wade likely will shoot better.

Maybe the Bulls have answers. Maybe this series will head back to the United Center for Game 5 tied 2-2. But it’s not easy to see how right now, because they have no easy answers to some very difficult questions.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.