Heat hit self-destruct button, Pacers steamroll to Game 3 win

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The Miami Heat self-destructed, and Dwyane Wade hit the button.

Wade, the 2006 finals MVP, was 2-for-13 shooting and had words with coach Erik Spoelstra as the Heat came apart at the seams and fell to a Pacers team growing in confidence with every minute. Game 3 finished 94-75 — which is pretty reflective of how the game went — and the Pacers lead the Eastern Conference semifinals series 2-1.

The Pacers are in the Miami players’ heads, and you have to wonder if the Heat can get them out of there before Game 4. The Heat hesitate with decisions, seem to be looking over their shoulder, and their confidence is shaken. Meanwhile, the Pacers have Danny Granger and George Hill knocking down 3-pointers and Roy Hibbert scoring 19 and owning the paint.

Most fans — and apparently the Heat players — did not realize before this series how good the Pacers were. They do now.

What nobody expected was for the Heat to buckle at the first sign of adversity. Especially not Wade, who was minus-19 and jawed with his coach during the blowout. After the game in his news conference, Spoelstra blew off the incident.

“Anybody who hasn’t been part of a team, been a coach, been a player, you have no idea how often things like that happen,” Spoelstra said. “It was during a very emotional part of the game, we were getting our butt kicked. Those exchanges happen all the time during the course of an NBA season… that was nothing, the least of our concerns.”

Which is good, because the Heat have a plethora of concerns.

Without Chris Bosh setting the picks and spacing the floor, the Miami offense has become a muddled mess. That’s not all about Bosh, that’s about how the Heat responded to adversity. They shot 37 percent as a team, 20 percent from three.

LeBron James played well early, but like the rest of the Heat faded as the game went on, finishing with 22 points on 22 shots. He could not take over and turn the tide. He was so unimpressive, Lance Stephenson was giving him the choke sign from the bench.

The death throes of a coach in a series often come when they start to look deep down the bench for a spark from a matchup that hasn’t really worked for them all season. This game Spoelstra switched up the starting lineup to put Dexter Pittman and Shane Battier in it. Yes, Pittman.

It is another sign that the Heat are in serious, serious trouble in this series, to go with arguing on the bench, the muddled offense, the inability to hit 3-pointers and general bad play.

The Pacers are far the better team right now. It’s not close. If the Heat didn’t have the guys who should be the two best players in the series on their side, we would be calling this thing over. Maybe we should anyway.

Report: Kyrie Irving likely out ‘extended period’ with shoulder procedure

Kyrie Irving
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Kyrie Irving injured his shoulder earlier this season, opted against surgery, missed 26 games, returned, injured his knee then aggravated his shoulder.

It might be time for that shoulder surgery.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends Irving’s season. The Nets are looking forward to pairing Irving and injured Kevin Durant next season.

This latest setback raises questions about Irving’s ability to stay healthy and productive. We shouldn’t assume Durant will ever return to his elite form, either. But at least Brooklyn has major upside with such talented players.

Even they don’t get an opportunity to take advantage this season, the Nets (25-28) will likely still make the playoffs. Spencer Dinwiddie will take charge at point guard, just as he did with Irving previously sidelined.

Brooklyn will visit Boston on March 3. Celtics fans were salty about Irving missing the Nets’ previous trip to Boston. I doubt that changes if Irving doesn’t face his former team in a couple weeks.

But Irving and Brooklyn are looking at the bigger picture after a significant injury like this.

Is Brandon Ingram worth a max contract? Will he get one?

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Brandon Ingram has made the leap to become an All-Star player this season. His jumper has become a weapon — another success story for Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson — and his ability to get to the bucket was never in question. Now he’s averaging 24.9 points per game and is shooting 40 percent from three (up from 33 percent the first three years of his career).

Will that get him a max contract this summer? Does he deserve one?

It depends on who you ask. From Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

Most executives believe Ingram isn’t worth a max contract, which makes his future difficult to predict.

“I wonder if [Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin] will hardball [Ingram] and say, ‘Get an offer,'” one executive asked. “Where is he getting it from?”

Another exec went the other way, suggesting Griffin could offer Ingram a full max to ensure he couldn’t take a short-term deal elsewhere, cementing him as the No. 2 option alongside Zion Williamson.

“Securing the extra year and not allowing him to sign a two-plus-one with someone is worth it,” the executive said. “Is the few million less you might save really worth the extra year?”

There are a number of struggling teams in need of talent that could step in and try to poach Ingram with a two-year max offer this summer: The Hawks, Hornets, Knicks, and Pistons all have the cap space and a fit.

Whether they will make that offer — possibly tying their hands in the 2021 free agent market — remains to be seen. Ingram is an All-Star averaging an efficient 24.9 points per game this season, he has real value, but max contract value? I’ve had sources this season tell me they expect he’d get the max but he wasn’t quite on that level.

Do the Pelicans see him as a max player?

They didn’t last summer. After the trade from the Lakers (which sent Anthony Davis to L.A.), Ingram didn’t get a max contract extension offer from New Orleans and told NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman he would “absolutely not” have signed for less. The Pelicans were hesitant to extend Ingram because he was coming off a season-ending injury — blood clots in his arm — that could linger, plus how well would he pair with Zion Williamson. Ingram had no hard feelings about it.

“I understood everything that went on with the contract and everything, because they wanted to know if I was going to be extremely healthy, if something was going to come back,” Ingram told NBC Sports. “Once I figured out the reason why they didn’t want to do the extension, we didn’t go any further with it. I knew it was not going to be the number we wanted.”

Ingram has stayed healthy, and the Pelicans are +7.3 points per 100 possessions when Ingram and Williamson are on the court together (small sample size alert). Ingram has more value to the up-and-coming Pelicans than he does any team trying to sign him away, meaning the Pelicans likely match any offer.

The question remains, will that offer be a max? Ingram expects it to be, but the rest of the league is undecided.

Nikola Jokic says he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season

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For November, Nikola Jokic averaged 15.8 points per game, with a below-league-average 51 true shooting percentage and hitting 23.6 percent from three.

In February, Jokic is averaging 27 points a game with a 66.3 true shooting percentage and is knocking down 35.3 percent of his shots from three.

The difference? He admitted he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season, thanks in large part to an improved diet. Look at what Jokic said to ESPN over the All-Star break.

“I think I didn’t shoot it that well in the first [part of the season], my shots were always off and short and I was a little bit overweight.”

He then went on to say he has dropped 20-25 pounds.

It was pretty obvious to observers that, despite playing for Serbia at the World Cup (where his team beat Team USA), he had shown up to Nuggets training camp heavy. Jokic is so skilled that even heavy he was a good player, but he was not the elite center the Nuggets need to be a threat.

He is back to being that Jokic now, looking like an All-NBA player who deserves some MVP ballot consideration — and the Nuggets need that version of him.

Denver comes out of the All-Star break as the two seed in the West, but only 3.5 games separate seeds 2-5. Denver has a tougher remaining schedule the rest of the way than any of the other teams in that mix, slip up a few games and the Nuggets could start the playoffs on the road.

League executives expect Giannis Antetokounmpo to re-sign with Bucks

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On July 1, Milwaukee GM Jon Horst is going to put a $254 million supermax contract in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He is almost certainly going to sign it.

Sources have been saying that to NBC Sports — and we have been reporting that — all season long. While other teams are making the smart play to leave their options open — an MVP entering the prime of his career does not potentially become available often — the Greek Freak was always likely to re-sign in Milwaukee. Other executives have said as much to reporters around the league, but that doesn’t make for exciting headlines, it does not does it generate clicks, so people have focused on the slim chance he leaves. For his part, Antetokounmpo has left the door open to leaving, a page out of LeBron James‘ playbook to keep pressure on the organization to build a winner around him. Nobody expects him to walk through that door.

Antetokounmpo staying is not just what I hear from sources. Here is Tim Bontemps from ESPN.

Given how well the Bucks are playing, every executive we spoke to expects Antetokounmpo to re-sign with Milwaukee. The Bucks are overwhelming favorites to reach the NBA Finals, and falling short of that bar looks to be the only thing that could put Milwaukee’s MVP in play.

Why will Antetokounmpo re-sign with the Bucks. Here’s the bullet point list of reasons:

• Milwaukee can give him five-years, $254 million guaranteed, the richest contract in league history. The most another team can offer is four-years, $188 million. While Antetokounmpo would make money in that fifth year with a new team to cover some of that gap, it wouldn’t be all of it. He would be leaving money on the table.

• The Bucks are a legit title contender with a roster built around him. Antetokounmpo is very competitive and wants to win — and the Bucks are doing that. We all have some questions about the Bucks in the playoffs — will the Bucks role players step up? Will Mike Budenholzer get creative and aggressive? Will their defensive scheme that surrenders threes backfire? — but the Bucks have been the clear-and-away best team in the East and have looked strong against the best teams in the league. Plus, if they make the Finals, that is the definition of a contender.

• For Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee is home. This isn’t a Paul George/Kawahi Leonard situation where he wants to get back to where he grew up, he’s not moving back to Athens to play for Panathinaikos. Milwaukee is the only city in America he’s called home. More than that, Milwaukee is the first place he and his family felt safe. Plus, now he has a child in that city. That’s a lot of ties to a place.

• Then there’s this quote from Antetokounmpo’s agent, Alex Saratsis, of Octagon Basketball, speaking to  TMJ4 News of Milwaukee:

“Giannis believes in loyalty, he believes in the people who’ve been there with him from the beginning, and I think he feels that kinship to the city because they have really helped raise him.”

Other teams are going to watch Antetokounmpo and leave the door open. Every word he says during the playoffs, especially if he gets frustrated, will be scrutinized. Everyone will be looking for signs.

But come July, Antetokounmpo almost certainly will sign the contract and stay in Milwaukee.