Miami holds on, beats Chicago. Can we just start their playoff series now?

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In two ways Sunday’s Heat victory over the Bulls summed up this young season.

First, the Bulls and the Heat are the two best teams in the East. Clear and away. Philadelphia, Atlanta and even Indiana are good, but these two teams are on another level and are destined for an Eastern Conference finals rematch. Which promises to be very entertaining.

Second, it was sloppy when it mattered. Even the referees were blowing plays at the end. Just like so much of this season.

Beyond that, this game was a measuring stick of where the teams are right now, and as we expected they are close. Miami gets the win 97-93, they got a big 35 points on 23 shots from LeBron James and their bench was good. Chicago got 34 points from Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton caused the Heat trouble and scrapped back from double-digit deficits twice. All without Luol Deng.

Don’t try to project this game to the end of the season, because both will be different squads by then. The only thing you can project is that series is going to be very entertaining, very fun.

The other talking point out of this game is how ugly the ending was.

On two consecutive possessions late the Heat tried to isolate LeBron James, but he went Kobe Bryant style dribbling on the perimeter to create space then shooting a long jumper that was contested. One of those came with less than a minute to go and the Bulls, down 4 at the time, ran off the miss and Rose was able to draw the blocking foul and hit the shot to make it an and-one. Suddenly it was a one point game with 49 seconds left.

So the Heat run the clock down but it ends with another LeBron James contested miss, and once again Rose is off and running. Rose pushed it a lot at the end of the game to counter having LeBron on him when the Heat set their defense — he had to give up the ball a lot in standard sets the last few minutes, but in transition he was picked up by others who were backpedaling.

This time the pushing of the ball led to a Udonis Haslem foul and Rose going to the free throw line.

And he missed both. Down one the Bulls had to foul, and LeBron had the ball so they fouled him.

And he missed both.

Then the referees inadvertently blew the whistle on a live ball, so they had to stop play and have a mid-court jump ball. Which LeBron won and the Bulls fouled Mario Chalmers, who proceeded to only make one of two giving the Bulls one last chance.

Rose drove into the lane, the refs (wisely) let contact with Haslem go, and Rose went up with a last-second 10-foot floater to tie, and missed it. Game over (save for a couple Chris Bosh free throws).

Some people are going to jump on LeBron and/or Rose for their end of game play, but to me it just looked like the rest of the season.

LeBron James tweaked his shoulder in the first quarter and iced it during the game, but he returned and didn’t show any signs that this will linger. He was back to himself, and back in the post backing down Ronnie Brewer late in the game.

This game is a playoff preview and it lived up to the hype. And it lived up to the highlights. Rose slashed and showed off his body control, which is as good as the league has ever seen. The Heat were off and running early and that led to some fantastic highlights.

It means nothing about these teams in the playoffs, other than to whet our appetite.

Can we just start the Eastern Conference finals tomorrow?

Manny Pacquiao says he has thought about buying part of NBA team when he retires

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At age 40, Manny Pacquiao is not retiring. Even if you and some boxing pundits think he should. Tonight (Saturday) he fights Keith Thurman at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and is expected to pull down about a cool $26 million for his trouble. If you’re getting paid like that, why retire exactly? He has said he wants to fight another five years or so.

After that, he’d like to buy part of an NBA team.

That’s what he told TMZ in a pre-fight interview.

He said he has thought about buying a piece of an NBA team after he retires. Pacquiao, a basketball nut who uses the sport as part of his training, owns an entire semi-pro league — the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League — in the Philippines (one of the most basketball-crazy nations on earth). Pacquiao said he thinks his experience with that league would help him as an NBA owner, that some of the skills will translate, which is likely true. Pacquiao said it’s about finding the right opportunity.

Forbes estimates that Pacquiao will have earned, after Saturday’s fight, more than $500 million in his career. Various websites estimate his net worth in the $200 million range. He’s got the money to jump in as a part owner.

In an NBA that loves personalities and characters — and one always trying to gain more traction in Asian markets — don’t be shocked if this happens someday.

Once Pacquiao retires.

C.J.McCollum, Eric Gordon both withdraw from USA Basketball for World Cup

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First Anthony Davis. Then James Harden.

Now add C.J. McCollum and Eric Gordon to the list, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Don’t be surprised if a couple of new players are added to the USA roster for training camp.

The loss of those four stars strips the Team USA of some international experience. As pointed out by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, now only four members invited to USA camp have played in the World Cup or Olympics: Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Kevin Love, and Kyle Lowry — and Lowry just had thumb surgery and is questionable for the playing in China.

USA Basketball can still roll out this starting five:

Damian Lillard
Bradley Beal
Khris Middleton
Tobias Harris
Andre Drummond

Then off the bench have Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, P.J. Tucker, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez.

That’s still enough talent, coached by Gregg Popovich, to win the World Cup. The USA remains the heavy favorites for a reason.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

James Harden reiterates it was ‘false talk’ he and Chris Paul were at odds

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The Houston Rockets — not in an anonymous way, but in a “we are putting our names on this, quote me” kind of way — have pushed back hard on the narrative that there was tension between Chris Paul and James Harden that led to the Rockets trading CP3 for Russell Westbrook this offseason. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has denied it, team leader P.J. Tucker called it fake news, and Paul himself has pushed back.

Harden has done that again, speaking at his camp on Saturday.

The counter-argument to this: Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City right now.

People will believe what they want to believe, but the Rockets guys have all gone on the record about this. Nothing leaked and anonymous.

From the Rockets’ perspective, they made a trade for Westbrook that is a roster upgrade. Houston has a dynamic duo that can compete with the Los Angeles teams and the other contenders around the league, and whatever questions fans and the media may have about the ultimate fit of Harden and Westbrook the talent level is not in question.

Do the Rockets make that trade if everything is great between Harden and Paul? Probably, if they saw CP3 as in decline and Westbrook as a talent upgrade (which they did). The Rockets can be a cold, business-like organization in terms of their pursuit of a title.

We will see next season if that calculation paid off. Whether or not Harden and CP3 got along.

Report: Kyle Korver reaches one-year deal to join Milwaukee Bucks

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The Bucks can never have enough shooting around a driving Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Enter Kyle Korver. The veteran sharpshooter will be headed to Milwaukee on a one-year contract, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a quality pickup at the minimum (it is a veteran minimum contract). Korver averaged 8.6 points per game last season, taking 72 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and knocking down 39.7 percent of them. The man has gravity and pulls a defender because even at age 38 defenders cannot leave him. Shooting is a skill always in demand.

The Bucks will start Wesley Matthews at the two and have Sterling Brown behind him. They have Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton at the three. Now they have some reliable veteran depth at those spots and a guy who can hit the big shot for them.