NBA Playoffs: Heat outclass the Bulls, take series lead

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Game 1 of the Bulls-Heat series was the kind of game the Bulls wanted to play — a physical slugfest that saw Chicago dominate the Heat by destroying them on the boards and keeping LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from being able to do too much damage. Game 2 was the kind of game that could have gone either way — neither team was able to get its offense going at all, but the Heat were able to keep the Bulls from killing them on the glass and took the game over in the final five minutes.

Game 3 was the kind of game the Heat wanted. The Heat got out to an early lead, ran their offense cleanly and shot over 50%, and forced Chicago’s offense to try and match their output. And with Derrick Rose contained yet again (he finished with 20 points on 19 shots and five assists), the Bulls had no hope of keeping up with the Heat.

The Heat’s half-court offense hummed on Sunday night, and that was mainly thanks to the play of Chris Bosh. LeBron James finished with 22 points, but spent most of the game facilitating and defending, and Dwyane Wade had some trouble getting his offense going after a few unsuccessful layup attempts early. Fortunately for the Heat, Bosh had his best game since becoming a member of Miami’s “Big Three,” and likely the best game of his career.

The Heat went to Bosh in pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll, and high-post situations all game long, and everything he did seemed to work. When the defense gave him space, he drained a mid-range jumper. When they tried to close out on him, he used his up-fake to clear space and attack the basket off the dribble. When they defended him perfectly, he hit impossible fadeaways. When he rolled to the basket, his teammates found him and he converted. With Bosh as the Heat’s offensive fulcrum, the Bulls were never able to get enough stops to really threaten the Heat, and Miami scored 25 or more points in each of the last three quarters.

On the other end of the court, the Heat’s defense looked as impressive as their offense. Joel Anthony, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade all appeared to be in multiple places at once, and came from out of nowhere to come up with steals, blocks, shot contests, and drawn charges time and time again while maintaining a wall between Derrick Rose and the basket. The Bulls had some success when they were able to get out in transition or utilize Joakim Noah’s superb passing skills in half-court situation, but the Heat seemed a step ahead of the Bulls’ offense for the vast majority of the night.

Some of Chicago’s players, notably Keith Bogans, tried to bump the Heat players around and turn the game into the kind of physical battle they want to play against the Heat, but the Heat had none of it — it’s amazing how easy it is to keep your composure in the NBA when most of the shots you take go in the basket.

The Bulls now find themselves in the exact same position as the Heat were a week ago: they don’t have home-court advantage, they’re behind one game, and they’re coming off of a demoralizing and clear defeat. If they can get themselves together the way the Heat did after Game 1 and win Game 4, they get home-court advantage right back and put themselves in a very good position in this series, and this is a Bulls team that almost never went on any kind of a losing streak this season. However, if the Heat can make Game 4 look anything like Game 3 did, the Bulls will find themselves in major trouble.

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Deandre Ayton misses coronavirus test, arrives late to underway Suns-Thunder game

Suns center Deandre Ayton
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Another testing issue for Deandre Ayton.

This one comes at a terrible time for the Suns.

Phoenix is trying to complete a longshot run to the playoffs and playing the Thunder in a key game today. But Ayton arrived late to the arena after missing a coronavirus test yesterday.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Like many Suns, Ayton has played well in the resumption. Phoenix doesn’t have another big-man option like him, especially with Aron Baynes sidelined. The Suns started Dario Saric in a small lineup today.

Ayton arrived to the arena and is warming up on an exercise bike. He could still get into the game and make a difference.

Already locked into the 4-6 range in the Western Conference and perhaps trying to keep its top-20-protected first-round pick, Oklahoma City is playing without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroder. None of those will players will make a late entrance into the game.

Also: It’s ridiculous this wasn’t publicly disclosed sooner. The NBA continues to tout transparency while trying to draw more gambling revenue. Yet, a major lineup issue like this remains secret? That opens the door for some bettors to get inside information, which would be so damaging to the league’s integrity.

Kings now sole owners of second-longest playoff drought in NBA history

Sacramento Kings
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The Kings’ 2018-19 season ended with optimism.

Facing a meager over/under of 25.5 wins, Sacramento surged to 39 wins – its best record in 13 years. Under Dave Joerger, the Kings played a fast and fun style. De'Aaron Fox made historic improvements. Buddy Hield broke out. Several other young players showed promise.

Sure, the Kings missed the playoffs for a 13th straight season – matching the second-longest playoff drought in NBA history. But they were on track to end the skid soon enough.

Except, of course that’s not how it went in Sacramento.

The Kings were eliminated from the postseason chase yesterday, ensuring a 14th straight season outside the playoffs. That alone is now NBA’s the second-longest-ever postseason drought, breaking a tie with the Timberwolves (2005-17). Only the Buffalo Braves/San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers’ 15-year non-playoff streak (1977-91) is longer.

Here are the longest postseason droughts in NBA history:

The Suns could still reach 10 straight years outside the playoffs, but they’re still in the race this season.

The Kings might not be far from climbing this list, either.

Their future looks far bleaker than a year ago. Sacramento fired Joerger to hire Luke Walton, who has underwhelmed. Buddy Hield signed a lucrative contract extension then had a rough season. Fox progressed, though he didn’t make the desired leap into stardom. Other young players had ups and downs. Luka Doncic casts an even larger shadow from Dallas. The Kings’ organizational turmoil continues.

This was a feel-bad season in Sacramento, anyway. All the preceding losing only adds to the misery.

The Kings enter next season with one last chance to avoid the longest playoff drought in NBA history, and they do have a chance. But there’s only pessimism now.

Damian Lillard throws pass away from basket, off Tobias Harris, into hoop (video)

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Damian Lillard was making everything yesterday.

EVERYTHING.

Lillard, who scored 51 points in the Trail Blazers’ win over the 76ers, even got a bucket on this wild pass off Tobias Harris.

Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. It’s even better to be both.

LeBron James admits he’s still adjusting to playing without fans

LeBron James
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LeBron James has played to overflowing gyms and arenas since he was a sophomore in high school. There is always a crowd around him to watch him play. Or a massive crowd of reporters around him after the game. Or throngs of fans when he travels through China on a shoe tour. LeBron has always packed the house.

Until now. There are no crowds, no fans at the NBA’s restart at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. It’s now games in a stripped-down, made-for-television gym. And LeBron admitted to reporters after the latest Lakers’ loss he is still adjusting. Via Mark Medina of the USA Today.

“I am getting more and more used to being out there. It’s a very weird dynamic. I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time,” James said following the Lakers’ 116-111 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Saturday. “It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in…

“I’m getting more and more comfortable playing in an empty gym,” James said. “Just having the backdrop here is a lot different from playing in a high school gym or a college arena where you’re playing in the summer time, whatever the case may be. It’s very dark, extremely dark. You can literally hear a feather hit the ground. I’m just getting more and more comfortable playing with my game here in the bubble.”

LeBron has still been very good in the bubble — 21.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists a game — but he has not been quite the otherworldly, MVP candidate level player he was before the shutdown. His true shooting percentage of 51.9 at the restart is down from 57.7 before the break (and it has been below the league average since the restart). The Laker offense overall has scored less than a point per possession in the bubble and has been the worst offense in Orlando (leading to a 2-4 record so far). It’s not all LeBron, the Lakers as a team have struggled to get their pre-hiatus traction back, the chemistry is not quite right. But we know who leads this team.

LeBron and company also know they need to find that rhythm soon. They will enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed and face and eight seed — likely Portland or Memphis — that had to battle its way into the postseason. That team, whoever it is, will come in battle-tested and motivated.

The fans will not be there to pick up LeBron and the Lakers.

“I definitely love playing in front of the fans. The fans are what make the game,” James said. “Without the fans, I wouldn’t be who I am today. To all the fans out there that come watch me play, I miss you guys and hopefully someday I can get back to that interaction.”

Someday we all hope for that.

In the short term, LeBron and the Lakers need to find their groove in a fanless world.