NBA Finals: Go ahead and hate Heat, but respect them

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LeBron James’ decision — and by extension LeBron himself — has become the most polarizing figure in the NBA.

That can be good for business. Heat game television ratings are through the roof — because half the people tune in to root against them. Not that ABC cares much, they just want you to tune in for the finals. But the Heat are celebrity basketball players now.

I’m not sure I get why all the LeBron hate. Because he dared go team up with other stars? As if Magic Johnson didn’t have Kareem and Worthy, or Larry Bird didn’t have Parish and McHale, as if Jordan didn’t have Pippen and a bevy of others.

Maybe it’s because LeBron, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade inverted the NBA power grid — they had the temerity to decide to team up of their own accord, rather than having some GM or rich owner do it for them? That doesn’t bother me, I like the players having more power, but maybe that’s it.

Maybe it’s that the way LeBron handled The Decision, because for some it was egotistical? It was. It left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. But if you’re going to pick your favorite sports stars based on them not having an ego you’re going to have about two to cheer. Across all sports.

Whatever the reason you hate them doesn’t really matter. Go ahead. Having heroes and villains and playing out the drama of sports through that lens is at the heart of being a fan. Arrange people in those categories however you wish. But you had better also do this:

Respect the Heat.

Because while it took most of a season they have figured it out. They have gone from playing next to each other to playing off each other. They are playing smart, good basketball. They are a team, and potentially a special one playing beautiful basketball.

Did you watch LeBron the distributor in Game 4 against the Bulls? He made smart decisions with the ball virtually ever time down. It felt like Magic at times. Did you watch him on defense shut down Derrick Rose at the end of games? Shutting down the opponents best was like Jordan. When the moment called for it, did you watch him drain three pointers? That felt like Bird.

Beyond LeBron, Bosh has figured out how to step up when the other two are defended well or have focused on other tasks, he has figured out how to mesh with them. Wade remains as good a penetrator as there is in the league, as good a leader as the league has now.

Now you see the Heat going to a LeBron and Wade pick and roll at key moments. You see Bosh working hard off the ball and slashing to the rim. You see them all trusting Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller (and even Mike Bibby). You see LeBron and Wade taking on rebounding when the Heat needed it after Game 1 against the Bulls.

You see a team. All three are versatile. All three can play at both ends of the floor. All three — and by extension the Heat — have evolved into a dangerous team. Not a collection of stars, but a team.

You don’t have to like that. But you have to respect it.

Terry Rozier on Celtics’ challenge: “Too talented, yeah. Too talented.”

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Too many mouths to feed.

Among the many “what is wrong with the Celtics?” theories the idea that there are too many players who want touches and shots had a lot of traction around the league. Last playoffs, then rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year player Jaylen Brown, and “scary” Terry Rozier had increased roles — and thrived. They were the alphas (along with Al Horford), the guys with the ball in their hands leading a team to the conference finals, and they liked it — these are young players trying to carve out a role (or, in Rozier’s case, prove to other team’s he’s a starting point guard) and they didn’t want to take a step back. But that’s what had to happen with the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the rotation. The result was a lack of a pecking order on offense, uncomfortable sacrifices, and precious little of the fluid play that got them within a game of the Finals a year ago.

Rozier seems to agree with that theory, speaking to Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports in a story about Kyrie Irving’s adjustment to being a leader.

“I don’t think we’ve all been on a team like this,” Rozier told Yahoo. “Young guys who can play, guys who did things in their career, the group that was together last year, then you bring Kyrie and Hayward back, it’s a lot with it.”

When asked if the roster was too talented, Rozier didn’t back down.

“Too talented, yeah. Too talented.”

If everyone buys in, if everyone sacrifices (including Irving), if guys are willing to accept a role, all that talent can make the Celtics versatile and the team everyone expected. The team to beat in the East.

To get there will require Irving to be a leader — in words and actions. That’s more than just calling out the young core, it’s getting them involved and feeling like contributors so they are willing to make sacrifices. It’s doing the little things yourself. Can Irving do all that and turn Boston into the conference favorite we expected.

Or were Nets fans right, he is going to get frustrated and leave this summer?

The second half of this season in Boston is going to be fascinating.

Philadelphia signs Corey Brewer to 10-day contract in effort to add depth

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The Philadelphia 76ers remain a step behind Toronto and Milwaukee — and maybe Boston — in the Eastern Conference, despite adding Jimmy Butler to form a “big three” with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. One issue is getting those three to make sacrifices to their games and meld together. The second big issue is depth: J.J. Redick is their fourth best player, then things drop off a cliff.

Enter veteran Corey Brewer.

For at least 10 days, anyway.

The 76ers signed Brewer to a 10-day contract, the team announced Tuesday.

“For me, I love playing basketball. I just wanted another opportunity,” Brewer told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I feel like I did enough last year that I should be on a team. But sometimes things don’t work out the right way … you can’t look it like that. An opportunity is an opportunity. I get to come here, and I gotta prove myself…

“I’m like a glue guy,” he said. “I do all the little stuff. I play hard, I’m going to run hard, and I feel like the way Ben [Simmons] pushes it, that’s right up my alley.”

Brewer is the king of the leak out and may benefit from some Simmons passes that way.

Brewer split time last season between the Lakers and Thunder, and in OKC he showed he could play a role on the right team and shot 34.3 percent from three. That fit was not evident on the young Lakers, Brewer looked out of place and struggled with his shot, which is likely why he was not able to land a guaranteed contract this past offseason.

This is a 10-day contract, the Sixers can sign him to two of those before having to either let him go or commit to him for the rest of the season. This is likely the first in a series of roster moves over the next few weeks as Elton Brand looks to find the right pieces to go around his big three stars so the team can make a push this offseason.

Warriors, Nuggets battle for first in West

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Playing in big games has become the norm for the Golden State Warriors.

Not so much for the Denver Nuggets.

Tuesday’s matchup between the top two teams in the Western Conference is new territory for Denver. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Nuggets have been rebuilding and retooling, not competing for titles, but they have arrived this year and are challenging to be the best team in the Western Conference.

The winner of Tuesday’s game in Denver will sit atop the conference standings. Denver (29-13) has been up there for a while now, but the Warriors (29-14) might yet find another gear in the second half of the season as they pursue a third consecutive NBA championship.

They are about to get a new, big piece when DeMarcus Cousins returns this week.

The center, who signed a one-year deal in the summer, tore his Achilles almost a year ago. His season debut is projected to come on Friday at the Los Angeles Clippers. Golden State is expecting it will take time for Cousins to get fully immersed and integrated into the offense.

“We’re excited, but it’s a little daunting, too,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s not going to be simple just to plug him in. There’s going to be an adjustment period. He knows that, but it’s a fun challenge.”

The Nuggets have a big enough task stopping Golden State’s other stars. Guard Steph Curry, a two-time league MVP, hit 11 3-pointers in a 48-point effort to beat Dallas on Sunday, and then there’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to worry about.

And the Warriors have a revenge factor to use. The Nuggets beat them 100-98 in Denver on Oct. 21 when Juancho Hernangomez blocked Damian Jones‘ layup at the buzzer.

The Nuggets have been playing at a high level lately, especially at home, where they are 18-3 and have won their last 12. The latest was a grind-it-out 116-113 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, which might have been a perfect tune-up for the Warriors.

Denver has its own star power in center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray. Jokic, averaging team-highs with 19.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, had consecutive triple-doubles last week and then clocked in with 40 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists against Portland.

With or without Cousins, Golden State will have a tough time handling the Serbian. But the Warriors are best when they force teams to adjust to them, and they come at teams from different angles. One night it could be Curry, the next Durant. When tuned in, Golden State is hard to beat.

The Nuggets are ready for the challenge after getting everyone’s best this season.

“As teams give us their best shot because we’re No. 1 in the West right now, everybody gives the Warriors their best shot,” said Murray, who is averaging 18.5 points. “We just know we have the home court, and we beat them last time here.”

PBT Podcast: Breaking down the MVP race, other NBA mid-season awards

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Patience is not the NBA community’s strong suit — we were talking MVP race the first week of the season.

Now, however, it’s time. Teams are more than halfway through the season and we have seen enough games, we have enough data to start discussing who is the frontrunners for all of the league’s end-of-season awards.

Is it James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP?

Can anyone challenge Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year?

It’s a deep field for Coach of the Year, but is Mike Budenholzer the front-runner and can Doc Rivers, Dave Joerger or someone else catch him?

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports talk about their picks at this point of the season and who is in the running long term.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.