NBA Playoffs: Heat complement their star power with depth, take Game 4

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The Chicago Bulls finished with a better regular-season record than the star-studded Miami Heat for two reasons: superior depth and better play in close games. On Tuesday night, the Heat flipped the script on the Bulls, and took a commanding 3-1 series lead thanks to superior depth and late-game execution.

All season long, the Bulls have worn down opponents thanks to their endless array of effective role players and defenders; Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, and C.J. Watson were just as important to the Bulls’ success as anything else was.

The Heat, meanwhile, looked painfully thin for most of the year. Udonis Haslem missed nearly the entire season with foot injuries, thumb injuries and hesitant play kept Mike Miller from being effective all season long, Mario Chalmers was inconsistency incarnate, and the Heat’s three seven-footers have all spent most of the playoffs on the inactive list.

On Tuesday, with Wade having one of the worst games of his career, LeBron being forced to work for every single point or assist, and Bosh being shut down by Joakim Noah and smart Chicago double-teams, the Heat had to rely on their bench to save them. Remarkably, they did.

Mike Miller was an insane +36 in 26 minutes, and had what can only be considered a renaissance game. He finally stopped hesitating on the court, and started doing what he’s always done best — make jump shots. In a classic case of “don’t think, just shoot,” Miller showed no hesitation on his jump shot, draining two catch-and-shoot threes and three mid-range jumpers millseconds after he caught the ball. One of his made jumpers was a step-back off the dribble, which shows just how high Miller’s confidence was — he only took a handful of those shots in the entire regular season, let alone made any.

Mario Chalmers never lacks for confidence, and the mercurial guard came off the bench to score nine quick points and snag four steals, providing a needed boost of energy. Udonis Haslem didn’t score a single point, but his rebounding and defense were invaluable, and the Heat were +25 in his 34 minutes.

Chicago’s bench, meanwhile, failed to provide the spark it usually does. Kyle Korver’s shot remains missing, Taj Gibson went scoreless with one rebound in 10 minutes, and a leg injury limited Omer Asik to only two minutes of play. Without their stellar bench there to spell them effectively, the Chicago starters were forced to play 44+ minutes apiece, and the fatigue eventually became to much for them as the game wore on.

Miami’s bench players were the ones who kept the team alive through most of the game, but it was the team’s superstars that sealed the deal. LeBron James scored or assisted on 10 of Miami’s 22 fourth-quarter points, and his defense on Derrick Rose late was key down the stretch. Chris Bosh drew a key flagrant foul with just under five minutes to play, and made the last field goal of regulation on a jumper with 1:14 remaining and the Heat trailing by a point.

In overtime, the big 3 accounted for all 16 of Miami’s points, and Wade added two blocks and a steal in the extra period. It was a close game, it was an ugly game, it was the kind of game Chicago wanted, but they simply weren’t able to hold off Miami’s Big 3 when the game was on the line.

Now Chicago will have to win three games in a row to survive the Heat and move onto The Finals. The series isn’t over yet — Chicago only has to win one road game to survive, and their losses have all been competitive — but it looks like the Heat’s mixture of star power and their unlikely depth and ability to close out tough games may prove to be too much for Chicago in this series

76ers set to turn promising season into must-see TV

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CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — Ben Simmons is set to turn the 76ers into must-see TV.

But he hopes to have another smash hit off the court. NBC has given a script commitment to “Brotherly Love,” loosely based on the life of the Aussie-born NBA rookie of the year.

Deadline described the pitch like this:

“Brotherly Love is inspired by the life of Ben Simmons and centers on a unique sibling relationship within a multi-ethnic family. Together, they pursue their dreams while navigating life in the spotlight in Philadelphia, a passionate city where sports is in your blood, and your blood is always boiling.”

Don’t touch that dial – well, unless the 76ers are on.

“It’s just funny because a lot of people probably pitch their lives and think everything should be a TV show,” Simmons said Friday. “We brought it to life. (My brother) wrote something up, pitched it to a few different people. NBC loved it and went with it. It’s really going to be about our relationship and how things just happen. It’s more of a comedy-sitcom type of show. It will be pretty funny. Hopefully, that goes through and works out.”

Oh, and LeBron James (through SpringHill Entertainment) is listed as an executive producer.

The 76ers were shooting for Ben & Bron.

The Sixers met with James’ representatives just hours before the free-agent signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, the brief flirtation enough to make the organization think they might have a shot at the NBA great.

“I feel like he could have been a great piece to add to get us where we need to be,” All-Star center Joel Embiid said.

So the 76ers will try to win their first NBA title since 1983 without The King.

But with Embiid, Simmons and 2017 No. 1 NBA draft pick Markelle Fultz aboard, the Sixers believe they can top the 52 wins and a playoff series win from a year ago as they chase a championship.

Embiid, speaking at 76ers’ media day, said a successful season would be “an appearance in the NBA finals.”

That’s a pretty lofty goal for a franchise that made no meaningful offseason additions and just this week named 39-year-old Elton Brand, who retired only two years ago, as general manager.

“I just remember dunking on him really bad,” Embiid said. “That’s crazy it was two years ago.”

Coach Brett Brown expected a dominant season out of Embiid (22.9 points, 11 rebounds) and Simmons, whose friendship with Kendall Jenner made TMZ headlines this summer. He spent the offseason working on his jumper.

“I’ve never been on a team where I have to take shots,” Simmons said.

But the player who can make the most impact as a pseudo-newcomer is Fultz. Bordering on bust territory after just one season, Fultz had his rookie year derailed by a mysterious shoulder injury, a broken shot and confidence issues. He played the first four games, missed 68 games because of the injury and was benched in the playoffs against the Celtics.

Fultz struggled with his mechanics when he played, and his shooting form was widely mocked around the NBA.

Even his personal trainer, shooting coach Drew Hanlen, said Fultz suffered from the “yips” and “completely forgot how to shoot.”

The 20-year-old Fultz said Hanlen used a “misterm in words.”

“What happened last year was the injury, let me get that straight,” Fultz said. “It was the injury that happened that didn’t allow me to go through a certain path that I need to shoot the ball. Just like any normal person, when you’re used to doing something the same way each and every day and something happens, of course you’re going to start thinking about it. It’s just normal.”

Fultz took about 150,000 shots this summer and reworked his form to prove he’s ready join Embiid and Simmons on the Big Three.

“This summer was really just me working to get my mechanics back, my confidence back, my swagger back,” Fultz said.

The Sixers need it all – the swagger, the shots, the early success that can propel them toward Eastern Conference contention. The franchise that won just 10 games three seasons ago is now on the cusp of becoming an elite team.

“It’s going to be a great year,” Embiid said.

 

Minnesota reportedly moving to trade Jimmy Butler after ownership demands it

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Jimmy Butler met with Tom Thibodeau Tuesday and asked for a tradespecifically to the Clippers/Nets/Knicks. Thibodeau wanted no part of that, and he along with GM Scott Layden have shot down any other team that called, and not in a “we’re not doing that.. but what would you offer?” way, but in an “I’m hanging up now” way. Part of that may be smart negotiation tactics, but the more significant factors are that right now offers the trade offers are lowball, plus Thibodeau realizes his job on the line and this team is not as good without Butler.

So owner Glen Taylor has stepped in and laid down the law — he told Thibodeau and Layden to get on with a trade, ideally done by next Tuesday before the first day of training camp, according to multiple reports. From Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Against the displeasure of Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau, owner Glen Taylor has mandated that a deal needs to be negotiated to trade disgruntled All-Star forward Jimmy Butler in the next several days, league sources told ESPN….

Thibodeau has been willing to coach the Timberwolves through the dysfunction that has surrounded his star players, but Taylor has sided with Butler and agreed that the four-time All-Star should be away from the Wolves for the foreseeable future, sources said.

So far, few franchises, if any, are engaged in serious conversations with the Timberwolves on Butler, sources said. The list of organizations interested in talking further with Minnesota is significant, league sources said: Brooklyn, Detroit, Houston, the LA Clippers, Miami and Philadelphia are among the teams interested in probing for deals.

The problem is those initial offers will be lowball ones, in part because there are real concerns about Butler’s durability, while he is just 29 he has a lot of Thibodeau miles on him. The Timberwolves can put the offers they get in front of and his agent, see which teams he would consider re-signing with as a free agent next summer, then using that to get a better deal out of them. But to get all that done by Tuesday seems rushed and like it would lead to even a worse deal.

Even so, within a week Butler could be somewhere else in the league, once again

76ers invite Emeka Okafor to training camp (on non-guaranteed deal)

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Emeka Okafor was back in the NBA last season at age 35, after having been out of the league for four years trying to recover from a neck injury. He earned that chance going through the G-League, averaging 6.8 points on 61.2 percent shooting, plus pulling down 8 rebounds a game in 20 minutes a night, with a PER of 18.6, for the Delaware 76ers.

That was enough for the New Orleans Pelicans to call him up when DeMarcus Cousins went down, and Okafor got into 26 games. He played solid defense, and while he wasn’t putting up counting stats (4.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game) he was a steadying presence, and he had a PER of 18.6.

Then this summer, no team offered him a new contract.

Until now, the 76ers — and new GM Elton Brand — are going to bring him in on a training camp deal.

It’s a longshot Okafor makes the roster, the Sixers have 14 guaranteed contract and that does not include T.J. McConnell. Which means the roster is pretty much set. They also have Joel Embiid as the starting center and Amir Johnson behind him, plus some small ball lineups they will roll out.

However, have a good camp and another team looking for a backup center may notice.

 

 

Karl-Anthony Towns agrees to sign five-year, potentially $190 million extension with Minnesota

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It was a matter of when, not if.

Back in July, the Timberwolves had offered Karl-Anthony Towns a five-year max contract extension — which could be worth $158 million or, if he was named to an All-NBA team again next season, $190 million. Towns used his leverage and reportedly told management he can’t coexist with Jimmy Butler and reportedly would not sign the new deal until the Butler situation is resolved. Although everyone knew he eventually would sign, he was not leaving that much money on the table.

Minnesota is now working on a Butler trade — ordered by owner Glen Taylor — so Towns is stepping up to be the franchise’s face, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN but that Towns confirmed on Twitter.

Again, for Towns that is a $158 million extension, unless he makes an All-NBA team again (he was third team last season) or is named MVP, then that jumps to $190 million. Making another All-NBA team is certainly within reach.

From Woj:

Towns’ agent, Leon Rose of CAA Sports, informed the organization of Towns’ intention to sign the extension on Saturday night, sources said. The Timberwolves report for media day on Monday and begin training camp on Tuesday.

In a statement, Towns said: “On June 25, 2015, I was drafted to and committed to the Minnesota Timberwolves. On September 22, 2018, I made a recommitment to the Wolves and have the same feelings of excitement that I felt back in 2015.

“I promise to the fans, my teammates and the organization to keep the vision of the man who drafted me, Flip Saunders, alive and treat his dream of winning with respect and dignity. To the fans from Day One and the Timberwolves fans, this is for you. Thank you for believing in me.”

Towns, at age 23, is one of the best centers in the game. He was the No. 1 pick out of Kentucky in 2015 and the next year was named Rookie of the Year. Last season he averaged 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, the Timberwolves were 13.1 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court, and he was a key reason the Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons. Towns is one of the best post-up scorers in the NBA, he shot 72.3 percent at the rim last season, but also added three-point range and took 23 percent of his shots from deep and hit 42 percent of them. He is an offensive force.

Maybe most importantly for Minnesota, he hasn’t missed a single game in three seasons. Age and durability were the reasons that if it came down to Towns or Butler, Towns was going to be the choice of the Timberwolves. Towns signing this extension is not good for the standing of coach/GM Tom Thibodeau, who is not on the same page with Towns.

That said, the pressure is on Towns to step up his game now, particularly on defense. Using ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus (a flawed stat but one that provides a good snapshot) Towns was one of the weaker defensive centers in the league, playing at a current Dirk Nowitzki level. Towns was better last season as a shot blocker for stretches, but he was inconsistent, he is unfocused on that end, bites on pump fakes too much, and he is often slow to recognize the play and get over to protect the rim despite his physical tools.

In the playoffs last season, the Rockets’ Clint Capela completely outplayed Towns.

Towns is getting paid to step up and lead this team now, especially with Butler on his way out the door. Minnesota was counting on the same thing out of Andrew Wiggins after his big contract extension, and he regressed last season and has shown little passion or willingness to put in the work needed. Butler and others want to lump Towns and Wiggins together, but Towns has put in the work and is a professional, it’s not a correct comparison. However, the pressure is now on Towns to take that to the next level.