NBA Finals: Heat, Mavericks five keys to victory

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Miami always seemed like they had a chance if they just came together — and they did at the right time.

Dallas has been a surprise. We all knew they were good but we had been conditioned to expect them to fall flat in the playoffs. Instead Tyson Chandler gave them defensive toughness and Dirk Nowitzki has been playing the most efficient basketball of a Hall of Fame career.

This is going to be one interesting finals with a lot of questions to play out. Here is what each team needs to do.

Five Keys For Heat

Slow Nowitzki. Dirk Nowitzki has flat out been the single best player in the playoffs, not only scoring 28.4 points per game on but also doing it while shooting 51.7 percent and 51.6 percent from three. He is too good a scorer to stop, but they have to make him less efficient. A lot of that may fall to Udonis Haslem — who was able to hound Nowitzki into being just good during the 2006 finals — but look for Joel Anthony, Chris Bosh and LeBron James to get shots, too. The Heat have to work to deny Nowitzki position, front him and generally just make him work. Nowitzki is a more complete player now and better at getting his spots on the floor than he was five years ago. The Heat have to find a way

Bosh on the perimeter. If this meeting is anything like the regular season games, Tyson Chandler will be assigned coverage of Chris Bosh. Look for the Heat to use Bosh to set high screens for Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and everyone else, then have him pop out for the shot. Chandler has to respect Bosh from the midrange and stay out on him, pulling him away from the basket. And when he’s not blocking shots at the basket and that falls to Dirk Nowitzki the Mavs defense is far less threatening. Look for the Mavs to counter with zone.

Wade at end of games. The Mavs bring Jason Terry off the bench to providing scoring that few teams can contain. Then Terry stays out on the court during crunch time and will be asked to guard Dwyane Wade. That is a matchup where Wade is taller, stronger and more athletic. Dallas coach may try to hide Terry on defense by having Jason Kidd on Wade, but Wade is far quicker. Either way, Miami needs to exploit that matchup in end game situations.

Get transition points. There is no more fearsome sight in the open court than LeBron James bearing down on you. Just ask Kyle Korver. Maybe second on that list is Dwyane Wade. The Heat are nearly unbeatable if they get easy points in transition and are in full attack mode. They need to get the turnovers and run on the older Mavericks off misses. They need the easy buckets.

Get to the free throw line. This is twofold. For one thing, this is like transition points in that if the Heat can get easy points off fouls they become difficult to beat. Second, you tend to get those fouls when you are attacking. The Heat need to attack — they won Game 5 against Chicago because Wade and James hit jump shots late, but they cannot play like that all series.

Five Keys For Mavericks

Get shooters open looks. Like Chicago, Dallas really only has one guy who can create his own shot any time he wants. The difference is what is around him — Derrick Rose had no consistent shooters around him, allowing the Heat to trap him in key moments. Dallas is loaded with shooters — Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, Jason Kidd. Miami is an athletic team that recovers quickly, but either Nowitzki has to make them pay for not doubling or quick ball movement and knockdown shooters have to make them pay. The Bulls could not do it, but the Mavs have been much better at it.

Zone defense. The Mavericks defense this playoffs has been average, but they are about to run into the best team they have faced and it has to be better than that. Because Chris Bosh presents matchup issues that could pull Tyson Chandler away from the basket, look for the Mavs to use their matchup zone at key moments. Wade and James struggled against the Mavs zone in the regular season, but this is a much better Heat team. Miami will figure out how to attack it, but the Mavs may be able to get key stops out of it for a while.

Do not foul — especially you, Tyson Chandler. If Miami gets easy points the Mavericks cannot beat them. Not turning the ball over is part of that. But if you let the Heat make a parade to the foul like you have done the same thing. Dallas did a poor job of this against Oklahoma City, they must do better here. Chandler in particular has to stay out of foul trouble, the Mavs defense is much worse when he sits.

Crashing the boards. During the regular season, Dallas was a good defensive rebounding team, eighth highest percentage of defensive rebounds grabbed in the league. They have not been nearly as effective in the playoffs. The Heat are not usually a great offensive rebounding team, but this goes back to the “do not give up easy points mantra” the Mavs need. They have to control the glass – and get some offensive boards themselves, Chandler is not somebody anyone on the Heat can contain. The Mavs need to recreate Game 1 of the Bulls series, when Chicago dominated the glass and won.

The J.J. Barea factor. The diminutive guard has become a cult hero in the playoffs with his curving cuts through the Lakers and Thunder defense. It is the kind of bench scoring the Mavericks must have, and his high pick-and-roll with Nowitzki has been very deadly. Against Miami Barea and the Mavs will run into the most athletic and active set of big men they have seen. Dallas still needs to get those points if they are to win.

Watch Pacers rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.