NBA Playoffs: Knicks compete early, but Heat roll late to take 3-0 series lead

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The Heat took command of their first round playoff series with the Knicks, winning Game 3 in New York 87-70 to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Matt Moore and I discussed.

Matt Moore: Ugly, ugly, grotesque basketball Thursday and it looked like the Knicks could do the improbable without Amar’e Stoudemire, relying on Landry Fields and Mike Bibby. Don’t know how that plan failed.

LeBron just shut it down in the fourth. And for once, it was the other team! Just closed them out since he had so much energy. Wade’s third quarter, James’ fourth quarter, and maybe biggest, Mike Miller couldn’t hit, Shane Battier couldn’t hit, but Mario Chalmers could and did. If the Heat find one shooter a game to do that, they’re pretty much unstoppable. The Knicks did everything you can do and it still wasn’t nearly enough.

Brett Pollakoff: You always like to talk about whether or not a way a team wins (or is winning) is sustainable. Well, when the Knicks were leading in the second quarter by 11 at 40-29, what was the plan to get there? Let Miami start off the game up 9, then watch the Heat get bored and start jacking ill-advised three-pointers while you attack the paint to get easy looks, and finally, make sure the Heat go without a field goal for a stretch lasting almost 12 minutes?!

Yeah, definitely not sustainable.

Also, it didn’t hurt that LeBron played less than five minutes in the third due to foul trouble, which allowed him to play all of the fourth and score 17 (!) in the final period to finish things off.

So, two things: First, this was NOT a good game, and was nothing like the tough games in the 90s, right? Low-scoring and close does not equal interesting or exciting hard-nosed playoff basketball.

And second, how easily does the Heat win Game 4, having taken the (admittedly shorthanded and depleted) Knicks’ best shot?

MM: Horrible, awful game. The worst game I’ve seen since Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. Just terrible play, a lack of focus, bad shooting, needless fouls, a mishmash of movement. Sluggish and bad. I think it was like the 90’s, but only because I don’t overromanticize  bad basketball at any level.

I think the Knicks probably win Game 4. The Heat have no reason to let the Knicks win, should be able to coast, just have to not have a complete letdown. So naturally, they’ll let up. Also, two days in New York, with that crew of magazine-interview’in’, fashion-show-appearin’, mega-party-goin’ jokesters? No way the Heat come in fresh. Gentleman’s Sweep for the Heat. Let them win one, you know, to be polite. Melo is LeBron’s friend, after all.

How big was James though, in just choking the life out of New York down the stretch?

BP: I think the Heat got the excessive partying out of their system before this one, especially as evidenced by that first-half scoring drought. Besides, even if they hit the NYC club scene hard before Game 4, are the Knicks really able to do anything about it? Carmelo Anthony was 7-for-23, J.R. Smith was 5-for-18, and Steve Novak only attempted one three-pointer all night. As currently constructed, they simply don’t have the offensive weapons to hang with Miami for 48 minutes, and they certainly don’t have a point guard who can create easy, wide-open looks for the rest of the team.

(Seriously, Baron Davis is still out of breath after that and-1 drive in the first half, and might not recover until the offseason.)

LeBron coming out and scoring 11 straight Miami points to start the fourth was huge. Wade’s run in the third was equally important. A team like New York can’t stop these guys for an entire game, and the way the rest of the top teams in the conference are seeing players go down, Miami is going to have a much easier path to the Finals than expected.

Since the Knicks appear to be done, what do they need to improve upon before next season to actually win a game in the playoffs? In addition to not having their starting, $100 million power forward rip up his hand punching inanimate objects, of course.

MM: I’m not sure there’s much the Knicks can do. They’re flawed at their core. Melo and Amar’e doesn’t work. It was a bad plan conceptually from the start, and they’ve wed themselves to the player it’s harder to find a star to fit around. I’m sure James Dolan will spend some money trying though.

BP: I agree that Melo and Amar’e doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work. Sure, it would require a complete re-design of the offense from the top down, but the Knicks have a lot of money invested in those two, and I don’t see them being able to (or even wanting to) cut ties with either of them over the summer.

What’s clear, though, is that when the Knicks have everyone back healthy, they’ll need a creative, offensively-minded coach to make all of the pieces fit. Someone like Mike D’Antoni might be just the person to … Oh. Right.

Report: Boston nearing agreement to retain Marcus Smart

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When free agency began, a lot of us said that the restricted free agent market was going to be tough — not a lot of teams had cap space to start with, and those that did were not targeting players where the offer could be matched. Zach LaVine got a deal, but other name RFA were waiting, Clint Capela and Marcus Smart being the biggest names on the board.

We may be able to cross Smart off that list soon, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

That is in the range of what the Celtics had wanted to pay him from the start, around $12 million a season.

Smart expected more — north of $17 million a season — and was frustrated that no offers sheets came in that would force the Celtics to match. He reportedly was “hurt and disgusted” that the Celtics didn’t come in and recruit him or make a larger offer. Welcome to a tight market, the Celtics had leverage.

Smart is one of the top defensive two guards in the league, a switchable defender who can guard any perimeter position, all of which fits with Brad Stevens’ defensive system. He also brings a high motor — he generates steals and gets to loose balls. Offensively he’s a liability — teams can help off him, daring him to shoot — but when healthy the Celtics have the players to cover that up.

This looks like it will get done and be a fair deal for both sides.

Kawhi Leonard may not want to play in Toronto, but he will. For now.

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The moment it was reported that Kawhi Leonard was being traded to Toronto for a package based around DeMar DeRozan,  a second theme followed:

Leonard did not like this.

Leonard and his uncle/management team had tried to force their way to Los Angeles — in Las Vegas for Summer League I heard rumors about him wanting to be with either the Lakers or Clippers, depending on the source. (As with everything around Kawhi’s inexperienced management, there was no clear voice or vision, so there were a lot of conflicting rumors.) L.A. never happened because the Lakers think he will sign with them next summer, so they did not throw their best players into a trade — Brandon Ingram, in particular — while the Clippers didn’t have the assets to get a deal done. The Raptors jumped into that breach.

This has led to online speculation that Leonard will sit out in Toronto, saying he is injured, and try to force another trade.

Don’t bet on it.

Why? Because if he doesn’t play next season, even the Lakers would be very hesitant to jump in with a max contract offer next summer.

Leonard played in just nine games last season due to a quadriceps tendon issue, something that dates back to the season before that (he just played through it then). There was disagreement between doctors (and the sides) about whether this was a muscle or tendon issue, but the injury was real.

Right now, teams do not know how well he has responded to treatment, outside of second-hand reports. The physical Leonard has to undergo to complete this trade will be interesting.

If Leonard sits out all or even much of another season with the same injury, how healthy he would ever be must come into question. Even the Lakers and other teams that want him would have to be cautious about a four-year, $140.6 million contract (the max they can offer) to a guy who had missed a lot of the last two seasons.

To get where he wants to go and get paid, Leonard has to get on the court and play well. He has to look like Kawhi Leonard again, or something close to it.

He knows that, so he will be on the court in a Raptors uniform. If only for a year.

 

Lonzo Ball had arthroscopic surgery on knee Tuesday, should be ready for training camp

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It’s done.

As expected, Lonzo Ball has had left knee surgery on Tuesday and is currently in recovery. He reportedly will be good to go by training camp in September.

Ball averaged 10.2 points and 7.2 assists per game last season and made the NBA All-Rookie second team. This summer he had been working hard on his conditioning and jumper before the injury.

Ball will be asked to push the pace (as he did last season) and be a secondary ball handler who can create shots when LeBron does not have the ball in his hands. They fit together better on the court than some people think (Lonzo did play off the ball some at UCLA), but the challenge for L.A.of teams helping off Lonzo to double/trap LeBron on the perimeter is real.

The Lakers also took a couple of shots across the bow of Ball — and his father LaVar — this summer. First there was the signing of Rajon Rondo, then Magic Johnson said this about Josh Hart at Summer League:

The message is clear, the days of soft-pedaling and catering to Ball are over. He must earn his starting job, and there are legit challengers for his minutes. At some point, if the balance of off-court distractions and on-court production gets out of alignment, Ball’s job and standing with the Lakers are not safe.

But for now, he just needs to get right before the season.

DeMar DeRozan expresses anger at trade to Spurs on Instagram

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DeMar DeRozan has been loyal to Toronto.

He embraced the city when former stars abandoned it and pushed their way out of town. In 2016, as a free agent, he didn’t even meet with another team, he had no intention of leaving. He said he wanted to go down as the greatest Raptor ever. A Los Angeles kid himself — born and raised in Compton — he never pushed to go home, instead becoming incredibly active in the community off the court as well as being a four-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA player on it. He has led the greatest run of Raptors basketball in franchise history.

The Raptors were not loyal to DeRozan — they are shipping him to Texas in a trade for Kawhi Leonard that is being finalized.

DeRozan reportedly hates the move and put this up as an Instagram story.

“Be told one thing & the outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing… Soon you’ll understand… Don’t disturb…”

It’s not the destination that has DeRozan unhappy, he did not want to be traded, period.

Leonard reportedly also is unhappy with the trade — he wanted to go home to Los Angeles. However, Lakers would not the players the Spurs wanted into a trade (Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and more), and the Clippers do not have the assets to interest the Spurs in a trade. San Antonio was holding out for other bidders, biding their time, and in came Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri with an aggressive move.

Leonard’s inexperienced management team, which did not handle this situation well, wanted him in a major market that would boost Leonard’s marketing opportunities. While Toronto is a big market — sixth largest in the NBA, bigger than Philadelphia — and is the team of a nation with fans across Canada, this is not what Leonard’s people wanted. He is a free agent next summer in 2019.

DeRozan has every right to feel betrayed — next time you think of complaining about how players are not loyal to cities/teams/fans, remember this. Loyalty is a luxury in the NBA and one rarely rewarded.

DeRozan also will come around and embrace San Antonio, the Spurs culture, and Gregg Popovich. He will help them win a lot.

Whether the Raptors can win over Leonard becomes one of the NBA’s biggest storylines of 2018-19.