NBA Finals: Miami balances star power with rebounding grit in Game 1 win

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All that it’s taken for the Miami Heat to win games in this year’s playoffs is the ability to maintain reasonable margins. They go on runs, they shut down their opponents’ offensive options, and they stretch their legs with displays of supreme athleticism, but the body of the single-game narrative — the initial 43 or 44 minutes, as it were — is merely a precursor for the ludicrous feats of strength to come. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and co. aren’t merely closers, but the wielders of an unthinkable power; they keep games reasonable so that when the game dwindles to a close, their fundamentally unreasonable level of talent and ability can win most any game outright.

The Dallas Mavericks witnessed Miami’s explosive closing power firsthand in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which was competitive until James and Wade said otherwise. The Heat sealed the game with insane shot-making and excellent chemistry, as the possibility of a Maverick comeback faded suddenly and violently despite the best, futile efforts of Dirk Nowitzki. Neither team played well enough offensively to dominate the initial game of the championship round, but Miami’s brutally effective late-game execution put a winnable game just out of reach for a Dallas team accustomed to late game heroics of their own. The result was a 92-84 Heat win and a 1-0 series lead.

There are elements at work in the game of basketball worth putting under the microscope, but the powers that enable James and Wade to do what they d are hardly worthy of such scientific examination. There are so few answers to be found in the dissection of expert shot-making; the cliché that big players make big plays is only so out of necessity, as the defining moments in sports of all ilks so often escape the bounds of logical analysis. “Sometimes it’s not about the schemes,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said following Game 1. “Sometimes it’s about transcending that with your effort, your athleticism, and your ability.” Wade and James are certainly no strangers to such transcendence, and their collective excellence provided the enduring snapshot of the 2011 NBA Finals’ opening salvo.

Still, if the Heat’s showing in Game 1 could have been distilled down to the performances of Wade and James alone, the Heat would be left looking for answers after a disappointing home loss. Miami was only in a position to win by way of their offensive rebounding (Miami collected an offensive board on roughly 35 percent of their misses) and scrambling defense (Dallas shot just 37.3 percent from the field overall), two aspects of the Heat’s performance that often go unnoticed thanks to the glare surrounding the team’s brightest stars.

“I think rebounding killed us tonight,” Shawn Marion said. “For the most part, we think we had chances to get a hold of this game and we let it get out of our hands.”

However, Marion’s diagnosis isn’t as simple as pointing a finger at the Maverick big men. Tyson Chandler may have had just four rebounds and Dirk Nowitzki a decent but insufficient eight, but the Mavs’ approach requires a better team-wide effort in attacking the glass. James, Wade, Mike Miller, Chris Bosh (who was especially effective on the glass, and grabbed a game-high five offensive boards), and Udonis Haslem are all strong positional rebounders, which makes the battle on the glass far more complicated than simply how well Chandler boxes out Bosh and Nowitzki boxes out Joel Anthony.

Plus, the defensive scheme that the Mavs are forced to rely on due to the slashing brilliance of James and Wade creates a position of inherent rebounding disadvantage, regardless of whether Dallas is working man-to-man or in their vaunted zone.

“Our bigs have to be active, containing their great players on the perimeter,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said. “So it draws them away from the basket some…Look, a lot of the game is a scramble. We have to keep five guys in there. We can’t have that kind of deficit [on the glass]. You leave too much to chance.”

That was precisely the problem for the Mavs in Game 1. Dallas may execute their offense better than any team in the entire league, but they are still victim to chance; to the probabilities of a ball falling through a metal rim. Even with the near-robotic muscle memory of a talented shooter — like Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, or Peja Stojakovic, for example — and the patient ball movement of a well-run offense, nothing is guaranteed. Shots will still be missed, and in the Mavs’ case in Game 1, plenty of makeable shots were. Dallas shot just 38.7 percent on shots within nine feet of the basket, and while Miami’s defense certainly played a role in challenging many of those attempts, not every floater, layup, or short jumper was contested enough to expect a miss. The Mavs just didn’t convert on a lot of the attempts they usually make (or draw fouls on), and the fact that a lot of those errant attempts came from an area of the floor that usually yields highly efficient looks only made matters worse.

The Mavs know where they need to improve. They know that the rebounding deficit needs to be slashed, and that their shooting percentages need to shoot upward. Yet while some of that is imminently fixable (if nothing else, we should expect the Dallas offense to return to its sweet-shooting form as Carlisle devises even more ways to create open looks for his team), the connection between the defensive coverage and rebounding troubles presents a legitimate quandary. Contesting the penetration of James and Wade is a full-time job in itself for any defense, but committing too heavily to that prevention puts bigs like Chandler out of position to compete on the glass. The Heat have an ideal combination of defense-drawing talent and hard-working rebounders, and though the riddle that such a combination produces isn’t necessarily unsolvable, it should give Carlisle and his staff plenty to think about between now and Thursday.

Are plans for a play-in tournament just to get Zion Williamson in the bubble?

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The cleanest, most straightforward, fewest extra people in the “bubble” way for the NBA to return to play is to invite the 16 teams already in the playoffs — eight from each conference — and skip right to the postseason.

However, there is a lot of momentum around the league for a play-in tournament with 20 teams (or more). Specifically, one that brings in the four teams in the West clumped three-and-a-half to four games behind Memphis for the last playoff spot (Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, and San Antonio).

Why those teams? Because they had a real chance to catch the Grizzlies if play had not stopped?

Or, is it because the league wants Zion Williamson — its bright young star who spiked ratings and interest when he returned from injury mid-season — in the bubble? On ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, Brian Windhorst said some other teams seem to think the play-in plan is all about Williamson.

“Let me just say how do you get to 20 [teams in the bubble] though? Because if you just go by the straight records, because to me, this is what I’ve already heard, alright. I’ve already heard people in this league say this is an elaborate game to get Zion Williamson into this bubble…

“I’m not saying the NBA is going this route, I’m just saying I’ve already heard this scenario that no matter what happens, the cutoff line will be the Pelicans. They’ll be in.”

Windhorst is very well connected and I don’t know who his sources were for this, but if you’re with the Wizards or Hornets (or maybe even Bulls and Knicks), you would push for the nine and 10 seed in each conference to be in the bubble, not the next four best records (which are all in the West).

The NBA is a star-based league, of course getting its hottest new property into more televised games is a discussion taking place. You’d be naive to think otherwise. Whether Zion and the Pelicans end up in Orlando ultimately is another question.

All the lobbying and leaking of restart plans to the media — and even the pronouncements of Damian Lillard saying he will play if there’s no shot at the postseason — are spin. This is teams lobbying for what is best for them and their chances. Elite teams like the Lakers and Bucks want no part of a soccer-style group stage that is more likely to produce upsets, they want something more traditional. The Bucks are no fans of 1-16 seedings because then they would have to go through both the Clippers and Lakers to win it all (while the Lakers should love that plan, it sets up perfectly for LeBron James and company). Teams back different play-in plans that better lineup for them. It’s all politicking.

This Friday, in a conference call with owners, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is going to lay out a series of return-to-play options. A week or two after that, the owners will get on a conference call again and vote. Until then, everyone is going to lobby for their own self-interest.

That restart likely has teams reporting to Orlando for training camps in mid-July with games starting in late July or early August. How long the season runs depends on the format chosen. Next season almost certainly will start around Christmas (or maybe a week or two earlier, at most).

When a retired Michael Jordan showed up, dominated a Warriors practice

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It was the winter of 1995, major league baseball was on strike and Michael Jordan — at that time still a member of the Chicago White Sox organization — refused to be a scab and cross the picket lines.

“Mike was thinking about coming back (to the NBA), he was getting that itch again, it was a lockout in baseball, and he just wanted to play some basketball,” NBA legend Tim Hardaway told NBC Sports.

The Last Dance documentary covered how Jordan was secretly taking part in Bulls’ practices at that time. What it didn’t cover was the time Jordan flew out to California to see his friend, Rod Higgins (a Warriors assistant coach), and absolutely dominated a Warriors practice.

“It was kind of embarrassing for a guy to take that many months off then to come into our practice and dominate the way he did,” Hardaway said. “But of course, he’s MJ.”

Warriors players tell the story on The Sports Uncovered podcast, which launched today by NBC and takes a unique look at some of the most significant moments in sports. Like Jordan saying, “I’m back.” You can listen to the podcast below or download it at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your pods.

Jordan was always looking for a test, and the Warriors at the time provided one: Hardaway was one of the game’s great scorers (but was still coming off a torn ACL) and trash talkers, and Golden State had the game’s “it” up-and-coming player in Latrell Sprewell.

Hardaway takes the story from there.

“[Jordan] and [then Warriors assistant coach] Rod Higgins are really good friends, he just came to visit Rod and said, ‘Hey, Rod, you think [Don Nelson] would let me just come to practice and with y’all?’ And Rod asked him and coach was like, ‘s ***, why not, of course.’

“He just wanted to see where he was at, where his skills was at — and of course they was still there. The same skills, without much rust, that he left with. He was practicing with us, and I came up and was egging him on, ‘Let’s see what you got, s***, let’s see it.’ He said, ‘Alright, now, I’m still MJ.’ And I was like, ‘You had guys throwing balls at you, you been out two years, I heard you been shooting around but this here, this is the real deal now, you got to come and lace your s*** up.”

“It was him, Rony Seikaly, Chris Mullin, some other point guard, against me, Sprewell, some other guys, and man, we was playing for like two hours, and I wanted to go some more because he was bustin’ our a**. He wouldn’t let Sprewell dribble the ball at all — he kinda knew exactly what Sprewell could do, what he couldn’t do, his weaknesses and his strengths.

“It was like he never missed a beat, man. He was out there shooting fadeaways, dunking, playing defense, getting through screens, denying, jumping through passing lanes. It was a little rust, of course, but once he got going each game he got stronger and stronger, his timing got better, you could just tell. He was kinda tired at the end, but it was something to see.”

Hardaway, always the competitor, didn’t want to stop.

“I was kinda upset because I think his team took it more seriously than our team,” Hardaway said. “But he came in and put on a show in practice…

“He said ‘I can play all night, but you all have a game tomorrow and I don’t want to wear you out.’ I was not playing that much anyway so I wanted to get as much run as I can.”

Find out more about that legendary practice, and Jordan’s return, on The Sports Uncovered podcast.

 

NBA veteran Jason Terry takes job as assistant coach at Arizona

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Jason Terry played four years for the legendary Lute Olsen at Arizona, winning a national championship in 1997 and averaging 21.9 points a game his senior year. The Jet went on from there to play 19 years in the NBA, winning a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009, and he was part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team.

Terry had moved into the front office side of the business and was serving as the assistant GM of the Texas Legends, Dallas’ G-League affiliate. Now, however, he is jumping back to his alma mater, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This is a smart hire by Arizona and head coach Sean Miller. High schoolers going to a major D-1 school all have NBA dreams and having a respected NBA veteran who can say “this is what it takes” on staff is a big plus. Besides, Terry was a smart player who knows the game and had a mentality suited to coaching.

For Terry, he’s back in a place he likes, he’s young (42) and has a world of options ahead of him.

Scott Foster says it’s going to be different officiating without fans in building

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The noise from 18,000 people can cover up a lot of sounds in an NBA arena. So when a back-bench assistant coach yells “bulls****” after a call he doesn’t like, the official never hears it and the game moves on.

Not when NBA games restart in fan-less facilities in Orlando in a couple of months. Without those fans, referees are going to get to hear that coach. And a whole lot more.

It’s going to be weird for referees in Orlando, just like for players, veteran official Scott Foster said recently on NBA TV.

I know I don’t want everything that we normally say to each other going out. But normally we’re all in a professional manner out there. But it is going to be different. There’s going to be some assistant coaches that we haven’t really heard from before sitting in the second row that we’ll be able to hear now, so there’s going to be some adjustment there. And then I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.

But it’s definitely going to be a different thing. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience for the referees, players, coaches, everybody who’s going to go through this.”

It is going to be unique. Everybody is going to hear everything, and that is going to be very different from most nights when coaches have to go to hand signals because it’s too loud just to call out a play. It’s going to lead to some awkward and tense moments.

Everyone is going to have to adjust to the new reality, and that includes the referees, too.