Miami’s next step: Figure out how to be a team

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With the game and maybe the season on the line, the Miami Heat were what they have been since October of 2010 — individuals.

Dwyane Wade was the guy with the ball, standing out top and attacking off the dribble trying to find a seam to slice through. LeBron James was in the corner, motionless, a decoy. He was tired from having carried the team the first 40 minutes and it showed in his lack of movement. Chris Bosh was sitting on the bench because coach Erik Spoelstra “didn’t think it would be fair” to him to be out there in his first game back.

It didn’t work. Again.

For the second straight year the vaunted Miami Heat are about to be eliminated by a team — not a more talented group of individuals, but a group that is more than the sum of its parts because they play as a unit. They trust each other on defense, they make the extra pass on offense. Boston is the definition of team.

Miami has never been more than just its parts. Not for a consistent stretch anyway.

And that’s what the Heat have to figure out. It may well not be possible to do that before Game 6 in Boston. It is something they have to figure out this summer.

How? That’s the multi-million dollar question.

• Does Miami need a new coach? After the game, Spoelstra was sounding like a hollow motivational speaker with the kind of rhetoric he brings into the locker room.

“(We must) fight any kind of noise from the outside or any human condition, and to collectively come together strong to prepare for the next game,” Spoelstra said.

With the expensive talent on this roster his seat is permanently warm. Thing is, the players have bonded with Spoelstra and I don’t know that a coaching change really solves the problem. First off, late in the game Wade was not hustling back on defense and leaving his teammates exposed — some want to blame Spoelstra for a lack of motivation here, but that misses the point. If Wade is not hustling near the end of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals it’s not the coach’s job to motivate him — that’s all on Wade.

Also, who are you going to get that’s that much better? Pat Riley doesn’t want to return to the bench. He’s not about to bring in the ego of Phil Jackson to battle for control of the organization’s soul. Pretty sure Riley isn’t going to re-hire Stan Van Gundy. Do you really want to commit to Mike D’Antoni’s seven seconds or less? Spoelstra is not a bad coach and if you fire him you need to have someone better in the wings.

• Bring in more talent? Much easier said than done because the roster you have is already well over the salary cap and luxury tax thresholds for next year. The big three alone account for $52 million, the rest of the roster commitments bring the Heat to $78 million for next season already on the books. They have the mini-midlevel exception of $3 million — you think that is going to lure Steve Nash? After that it’s just veteran minimum deals. And making a trade isn’t going to be easy — who on this roster do you really want after the big three? You’re not getting much for them. Basically the Heat can keep adding some veterans willing to play for less like Shane Battier and Mike Miller, but that’s it.

• Break up the big three. Is two years enough time to decide that the experiment has failed in this form? I’m far from sold Pat Riley is ready to give up on this yet. And even if he is, trading a superstar — whichever one of Bosh, LeBron or Wade you decide to move — never brings back equal talent.

There are no easy answers. Maybe the best answer is for Wade, LeBron and Bosh to internalize the lessons that Dallas and Boston have taught them and make the sacrifices they need to themselves to become a better team.

But clearly, they are not there yet.

Kawhi Leonard arrives in Orlando, Nikola Jokic expected soon

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The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard has arrived in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando. The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is not far behind him.

They are two of the biggest name players who were delayed arriving in Orlando, but for them the delays were short.

“Kawhi, he is here, he is going through the protocol,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said Saturday, adding the two-time Finals MVP arrived Friday night and is in the midst of the two-day/two-test quarantine all players and staff went through. If things go smoothly, he should be practicing with the team by Monday. Leonard’s arrival was delayed for “personal reasons” (and Leonard doesn’t open up much about his personal life).

Jokic tested positive for the coronavirus back in his native Serbia, which delayed his arrival stateside (where there were more tests and quarantine time). Nuggets coach Mike Malone said Jokic should arrive soon.

That leaves the two Houston stars — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — as the biggest names not yet in Orlando. Both are expected to arrive in the coming days. The Rockets have resumed practice without him.

Doc Rivers challenges Sen. Josh Hawley to acknowledge Black Lives Matter

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Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley used the NBA’s list of social-justice messages players could put on their jerseys as an opportunity to grandstand. He wants more politics in the NBA — just his politics. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski got in trouble for his succinct response to Hawley (Woj reportedly has been suspended).

Clippers coach Doc Rivers had a longer response — and a challenge for Hawley.

“I mean, we have a senator that Tweets at Woj yesterday just because he was talking about what we were going to put on the back of our jersey,” Rivers said from the NBA Orlando restart on a conference call with reporters. “And they always try to turn it into the military or the police. There’s no league that does more for the military than the NBA.

“But how that about that Senator? I’ll make a challenge: We will do things for the troops as long as he acknowledges Black Lives Matter. I think that would be really cool for him to do.

“You know, it’s funny, whenever we talk about justice, people try to change the message. Colin Kaepernick kneels, it had nothing to do with the troops. It had to do with social injustice, and everyone tried to change the narrative. How about staying on what we are talking about and dealing with that, instead of trying to trick us or change or trick your constituents? How about being real?

“I guarantee you, we’ve done more for the military than probably that Senator. And I guarantee you this: We also are going to do things for Black Lives Matter. How about him? Maybe he should join into that.”

Well said, Doc. Well said.

NBA players and coaches will continue to speak out throughout the Orlando restart, and there will be steps toward action. In an election year, expect other politicians to try and use that as a cheap opportunity to grandstand.

Unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 has team execs concerned

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Doctors and scientists studying the coronavirus and COVID-19 are concluding this is not a respiratory disease, but a vascular one. That means the virus does not attach in the lungs and the airway, like the influenza virus; instead, this coronavirus attaches to blood vessels. This means any area of the body where there are smaller blood vessels — the heart, lungs, kidney, brain, and more — is at risk of long-term damage from mini-clots in those vessels (something found in autopsies of some COVID-19 victims).

The heart issues in particular — and everything we don’t know about a virus that is still only about 10 months old — has NBA team executives concerned about the long-term effects on players as they head to Orlando for the restart of the season.

Baxter Holmes of ESPN had fantastic insight on this subject, speaking to team officials for his story.

“There are unknown effects it has on lung capacity, unknown effects it has on cardiac health,” said one general manager of a team entering the NBA bubble, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “What if a 24-year-old catches it in Orlando and, in 14 days, he quarantines and is fine, but then he has these everlasting heart problems? [Or he] gets winded so easily, or he becomes a little bit too susceptible to fatigue? … These are all the unknowns.”

The NBA and the NBPA were particularly focused on the heart and cardiac concerns based on studies that found exercise while ill by people who had even a mild form of COVID-19 increased the risk of heart issues. The NBA’s director of sports medicine John DiFiori put it this way (as general advice) in the ESPN story:

“If you don’t feel well, don’t try to push through this. This is not a situation where anyone, whether you’re an athlete or not, should try to push through or minimize symptoms or try to ignore symptoms and try to push through to try to continue to work or continue to play a sport.”

What that means for players is if they test positive in the Orlando bubble they will be put on a two-week quarantine without exercise or much activity. The challenge then becomes that once said player is cleared they will have lost some conditioning and need to work out to get in shape again — they cannot just step back onto an NBA court and play. The bottom line, if a player tests positive they may be out more than only two weeks.

Ultimately, doctors know little about the long-term impacts of the disease on the body because this strain is so young — even the first people in China who had COVID-19 and recovered did so fewer than nine months ago. There are concerns about impacts on the heart and lung — not to mention other areas of the body — and far more questions than answers.

Which is why the NBA and players union want to be cautious. And why team executives are concerned.

Gregg Popovich had reservations, sees bubble as safest place to be

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Gregg Popovich fondly remembers his freshman year at the United States Air Force Academy, even though as a first-year cadet he was extremely limited in where he could go and what activities were allowed.

Lockdown at Walt Disney World, he said, reminded him of those days.

“But two days, anybody can do that,” the San Antonio coach said Saturday.

He made it through that freshman year with ease, made it through the two days of in-room Disney quarantine as well, and now the longest-tenured and oldest active coach in the league is free to roam within the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have reservations about being part of the NBA restart, given the ongoing issues of racial strife, social inequality, and the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you’re thinking person, you’re going to look at all sides of a situation,” Popovich said. “And, especially being 71 years old, I thought, ‘Is this where I want to spend a lot of my time, doing this, under these circumstances?”‘

The answer was yes, and Popovich was running his first practice in more than four months Saturday as the Spurs began getting ready for a playoff push. When the season resumes July 30, San Antonio will be 12th in the Western Conference – only a half-game from ninth, where the Spurs would have to be and within four games of the No. 8 spot to force their way into a play-in series.

“I honestly do believe – it’s not just being a loyal soldier of the NBA, I’ve done my share of criticizing here and there when I thought it was necessary – I don’t know where else you would be as safe as we are right now,” Gregg Popovich said.

LeBron James completely agrees with that sentiment.

Like the Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers – the West leaders, with James leading the way back into title contention after six consecutive years of not even making the playoffs – took to the Disney practice courts for the first time Saturday. And James said the notion of not being part of the restart “‘never crossed my mind.”

“This beautiful game of basketball, that brings so many people together, that brings happiness, that brings joy to the households, to so many families … I’m happy to be a part of the biggest sports in the world,” James said. “And I’m happy to have a platform where not only people will gain joy from the way I play the game, from the way our team plays the game, but also from what I’m able to do off the floor as well.”

And on the health standpoint, James, like Popovich, raved about what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and many others teamed together to make happen at Disney.

“They took all precautionary reasons, measures to make sure that we as a league are as safe as we can be,” James said. “Obviously, in anything that you do, there can be things that could happen, but we will cross that line if it happens.”

But Popovich’s age called into question whether he should be at the restart.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people 65 and over can be more vulnerable to the virus. The NBA has three head coaches who have celebrated that birthday; New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry, 65; Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, 69, and Popovich. Pelicans assistant Jeff Bzdelik, 67, and Los Angeles Lakers’ assistant Lionel Hollins, 66, are not at Disney for the restart.

“We have special guidelines and special things that we have to abide by,” Spurs forward Rudy Gay said. “I think going into this bubble, everybody has to take the proper precautions and do their own part … not just our team, but other teams. It’s definitely serious. It’s a serious issue. But we vow to do the right thing.”

Popovich points to rising virus numbers in Texas as proof that on the NBA campus, where players and coaches will be tested daily and exposure to the outside world is basically cut off, his health shouldn’t be more at risk.

And to him, this is much more than basketball. The NBA restart will be about raising awareness on social issues and combating racism, and Gregg Popovich wants to be a big part of that conversation.

“If this bubble works, I’m safer here than I would be in Texas,” Popovich said. “And since the decision was made to do this to start the season again, under these circumstances, with all the precautions, what a great opportunity.”