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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Monte Morris plays it safe – to Nuggets’ delight

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DETROIT – Monte Morris entered the NBA inauspiciously.

Despite looking like a borderline first-round pick after his junior year, Morris returned to Iowa State for his senior season. He pulled his quad during the pre-draft process in 2017, missing most of his scheduled workouts. He fell to the No. 51 pick. The Nuggets offered just a two-year, two-way contract.

“I was excited,” said Morris, a Flint, Mich., native. “Where I come from, if you get a chance to get to this level, everybody back home looks at you as the hero. So, I was just happy for my opportunity.”

Morris has seized it.

With Isaiah Thomas sidelined most of the season, Morris has emerged as a quality contributor in Denver. Morris deserves strong consideration for spots on Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player ballots. And this could be just the start.

The knock on Morris has long been his ceiling. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard is neither big nor overly athletic. In four years at Iowa State, he developed a reputation for protecting the ball and taking what defenses gave him. Usually, future NBA point guards bend the game more at that level. They use their burst and/or shooting to dictate terms to the defense. Morris left many scouts believing he’d be a career backup in the NBA – at best.

Morris has improved his outside shooting, making 43.1% of his 3-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game this season. But he’s mostly playing the same style he always has, avoiding bad shots and turnovers. It has just translated far better than expected.

Morris’ 6.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to be the best in NBA history. Here are the highest assist-to-turnover ratios since 1977-78, as far back as Basketball-Reference data goes (assists and turnovers per game in parentheses):

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Morris has gone 127 minutes since his last turnover.

“As a coach, that’s what you want in a point guard,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s a throwback.”

Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he competes defensively. Few reserves have produced like him this season.

Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis are pulling away from the field in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But the ballot runs three deep, and Morris ranks third among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players in win shares:

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Not bad for someone who spent most of last season in the NBA’s minor league.

Morris played well there, and he has only continued to improve since. He impressed so much in summer league, Denver signed him to a standard contract a year before his two-way deal would have ended. That way, the Nuggets could use Morris more than the 45-day limit for two-way players within the season.

“He embodied who we want to be,” Malone said. “He embodied our culture. Self-motivated. And every time you gave Monte Morris a challenge, he met it head on.”

Judging Morris’ improvement can be tricky. He played just 25 minutes in three NBA games last season. I suspect he could have handled a bigger role, even as a rookie. But there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. (Not so for my Most Improved Player favorite, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox, who was demonstrably bad last season then has become a near-star this season).

Undeniably, Morris’ impact this season is far greater than ever before.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Everything is trending the right direction for Morris. He’s showing the fruits of his work ethic, and he’s just 23. Maybe we can finally view him as someone with upside. But even if this is his ceiling, it’s high enough. Morris is already a productive NBA rotation player.

Perhaps best of all for the Nuggets, Morris is on just a minimum contract.

Here are this season’s win-share leaders among minimum-contract players:*

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*Excluding players who were bought out or just waived in-season then signed elsewhere for the minimum. Excluding players on rookie-scale contracts who had their salaries increased to the minimum by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Of the 15 minimum-salary players on that leaderboard, only two have contracts that won’t allow them to enter free agency and pursue raises this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a three-year, $34,360,473 extension in December, which he deemed even better than hitting the open market. Morris has two (!) additional minimum-salary seasons on his deal.

By getting him onto a two-year, two-way deal initially, Denver gained immense leverage in negotiations last summer. Morris could have played out his two-way deal and become a restricted free agent next summer. Instead, he took the safe approach with a three-year contract that guaranteed two seasons at the NBA minimum and included a third unguaranteed minimum season.

It’s incredible value for the Nuggets… and delays Morris getting a payday commensurate with his production. But he’s maintaining the same steady approach he shows on the court.

“It’s cool,” Morris said. “I’ve just got to keep being Monte, keep being on-time, keep being a good person, and everything will take care of itself.”

Former Warriors coach Don Nelson on how he’s spending retirement: ‘I’ve been smoking some pot’

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Last night, the Warriors honored their “We Believe” team, which upset the No. 1-seeded Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs. Golden State’s coach that year, Don Nelson, and two of his players – Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson – were asked how they’re spending retirement.

Nelson:

I’ve been smoking some pot.

But I never smoked when I played or coached. So, it’s new to me. But, anyway, I’m doing that. And I’m having a pretty good time. It’s more legal now than it’s ever been, so I’m enjoying that.

The best part: Jackson – who previously admitted to playing high – raising his arms victoriously while Nelson answered.

Giannis Antetokounmpo makes incredible chase-down block on Jayson Tatum (video)

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Look at this!

Jayson Tatum is barely in the picture as he takes off for the basket. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still at the free-throw line and looking at Terry Rozier.

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Yet, Antetokounmpo still caught Tatum for the awesome block in the Bucks’ 98-97 win over the Celtics last night.

James Harden: Scott Foster ‘rude and arrogant,’ shouldn’t be allowed to ref Rockets games

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In the Rockets’ loss to the Lakers last night, referee Scott Foster called James Harden‘s third and fifth fouls – both offensive. The third came in the first quarter and sent Harden to the bench early. The fifth set up Harden to foul out a short time later.

Foster also called Chris Paul‘s sixth and disqualifying foul. Then, Foster gave Paul and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni technical fouls.

In all, Foster called 12 fouls on the Rockets and six on the Lakers. In the second half, he called 10 fouls on the Rockets and three on the Lakers.

Harden, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant,” said Harden, who finished with 30 points to extend his streak of 30-point performances to 32 games, the second longest in NBA history. “I mean, you aren’t able to talk to him throughout the course of the game, and it’s like, how do you build that relationship with officials? And it’s not even that call [on the sixth foul]. It’s just who he is on that floor.

“It’s lingering, and it’s something that has to be looked at for sure,” Harden said. “For sure, it’s personal. For sure. I don’t think he should be able to even officiate our games anymore, honestly.”

It’s impossible to escape the timing of this. Former referee Tim Donaghy received renewed attention this week as more evidence emerged he fixed games. Donaghy and Foster frequently spoke by phone while Donaghy was still an NBA official, which only raised suspicions about Foster. But he explained the calls as simply friends conversing.

Fair or not, Foster isn’t particularly well-liked within the league. Paul also made pointed comments about him last year.

Does Foster have a personal vendetta against Harden, Paul and the Rockets? Were Foster’s calls last night erroneous? I’m not sure.

But it wouldn’t be the first time a referee let his emotions interfere with calling a game fairly. It’s probably worth the NBA taking Harden’s concerns seriously and assessing them.