Heat-Thunder Game 1: Miami didn’t choke; worse they were themselves

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The easy mantra out of Game 1 of the NBA finals is that the Heat choked. LeBron choked in the fourth quarter. Again.

But that’s not what happened. The reality is scarier for Heat fans.

Miami was exactly who they are. Who they have been all season, all playoffs. And unless they can find a way to grow and evolve past it this season will end just like the last one.

From Christmas Day until Tuesday night the pattern had always been the same for Miami — they didn’t need to bring it for four quarters to win. They were always the most athletic team. The faster team. The team that could overwhelm you with effort on defense and turn that into fast break points. And they’d do all that in spurts of great defense and ball movement and transition offense. Then they’d revert to stretches of stagnant ball and good defense. And that was enough to win.

That’s not good enough anymore.

Oklahoma City is up 1-0 in the NBA finals because they were the more athletic team, the faster team. The team that overwhelmed with defense and turned that into fast break points in the second half while Miami went into it’s shell. OKC won 105-94.

OKC can match Miami athletically and they execute for Scott Brooks for 48 minutes in a way the Heat simply do not for Erik Spoelstra. As they did against the Spurs, the Thunder showed an ability to elevate their game to the moment, to adjust and attack. Can Miami match that?

Miami is nowhere near out of this series — more teams than you can count lost Game 1 of the NBA finals and came back to win it all. Including Dallas last year.

But to that Miami has big questions to answer — how do they get Dwyane Wade attacking in the paint not settling for jumpers? (I’m still not convinced his knee is bothering him more than he is letting on.) How do they get LeBron James some rest so he is fresher and more aggressive late? How can they get Chris Bosh going? Is it time to take LeBron off Kendrick Perkins at times and just sick him on Durant the whole game? How can they improve their transition defense so the Thunder don’t run them out of the building on Thursday?

The Heat looked slow in the second half Tuesday — they looked like a team on a regular season-back-to-back, fading as the game went on. They settled for jumpers and as a team were 2-8 shooting outside 10 feet in the fourth.

Part of it are Xs and Os adjustments — Miami had great success trapping off the pick and roll in the first 20 minutes, and when the Thunder had a little success breaking it the Heat went switching the picks. OKC ate that up. The Thunder ended with 56 points in the paint. LeBron was on Kendrick Perkins so he could be on Durant to trap off the pick, to switch onto KD. Not that it mattered to Durant in the second half who was defending him.

Miami’s defense, by design wants to push you into isolation plays. A good strategy against 28 other NBA teams, but Oklahoma City thrives with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in isolation. The Heat need better team defense.

“When we’re not defending we don’t get opportunities in the open court,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Then when we don’t attack we don’t get as many opportunities in the paint or at the free throw line.”

The other way to slow down the Thunder attack is to make them take the ball out of the basket.

LeBron James simply can’t be good — ne must be exceptional. Tuesday night he was simply good, scoring 30 points, He was 2-of-6 for 7 points in the fourth. That’s not enough. Wade doesn’t look right and Bosh is coming off his injury, LeBron has to do more. Which is hard when Thabo Sefolosha is crowding you. But it’s the reality of where the Heat are — LeBron has to be a monster. Game 6 vs. Boston monster.

Shane Battier needs to hit shots again. Mario Chalmers needs to hit shots again, and other guys need to step at both ends. For 48 minutes.

But the Heat really haven’t done that all season or playoffs long. Can they change now?

Bob Myers says he initially told DeMarcus Cousins’ agent Warriors couldn’t afford center

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If the Warriors signed someone to a salary greater than the $5,337,000 taxpayer mid-level exception or acquired someone in a sign-and-trade, they would have been hard-capped at $129,817,000 this season.

That was obviously untenable for Golden State with its star-studded roster.

So, the idea of the Warriors adding DeMarcus Cousins seemed far-fetched – even to Golden State general manager Bob Myers.

Myers, as transcribed by Drew Shiller of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“It was early in the morning — I spoke to his agent. We had been preserving our taxpayer mid-level exception for somebody that might fall through the cracks and not get paid in a very tight free agency market,” Myers explained to Greg Papa and Bonta Hill on 95.7 The Game. “But mostly we were thinking wings. I figured if something like that were to happen it would happen July 8th, 9th, 10th.

“But we got the call and I just said, ‘Look. We don’t have anything more,’ because we’ve talked about other high-level free agents and the thought from their agent was, ‘Can you do a sign-and-trade? Can you get to a bigger number?’ And I kind of said, ‘Look, our roster is what it is. To move that many pieces around, to create $10 million in room, or $15 (million), it’s just prohibitive, I don’t want to waste your time.’

“So I thought that’s where the conversation was going … and I said to him, ‘We don’t have the money that you’re probably commanding out there.’ And this is the moment it became real — he said, ‘We understand what you have.’ And I said, ‘Well we only have the taxpayer mid-level.’ And then when he said, ‘I know,’ that’s when I knew it was real.

“They were very serious about it and they never really wavered.”

We’ve seen free agency from Cousins’ perspective. It’s interesting to blend Golden State’s into the story.

The Warriors are always eying stars. Their ambition might be unmatched. That not even they forecasted the possibility of signing Cousins – who accepted the taxpayer mid-level exception – speaks to just how much colder than expected his market was.

DeAndre Ayton draws himself dunking on Joel Embiid on trading card (photo)

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Joel Embiid issued a warning to pundits after the Suns drafted Deandre Ayton No. 1 overall: “Don’t compare Ayton to me either… I play DEFENSE.”

Ayton envisioned a response to the 76ers star while drawing on a trading card:

Embiid:

I’m impressed with Ayton’s artistic skills.

I’d be even more impressed if he dunks on Embiid, who does play quality defense – so far a hole in Ayton’s game.

Dwight Howard’s trainer: ‘He wants to evolve into Anthony Davis, into Kevin Durant, but his own version of that’

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In 2015, Dwight Howard said he wanted to play 20 seasons in the NBA. He also later admitted he considered retiring the same year.

After that career crossroads, Howard is back on the longevity track.

Entering his 15th season, the 32-year-old Wizards center is focused on getting into shape and developing his game.

Justin Zormelo, via Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

“He wants to evolve into Anthony Davis, into Kevin Durant,” Zormelo says, “but his own version of that.”

This sounds silly at first. Durant and Davis are far more skilled than Howard. But those superstars provide reasonable goals for Howard.

Durant – who has expanded his game the other way, going outside to inside – shows how to blend playing different styles. Davis provides an example of how to work off the ball as a modern big man.

Howard shouldn’t want to lose his strengths as an elite rebounder and interior defender, but he can move in the direction of Durant and Davis.

After getting pretty big with the Hawks, Howard slimmed down with the Hornets and excelled in transition. He also improved significantly as a ball-handler, allowing him to put even more pressure on the defense in advantage situations and attack with face-ups.

Howard hasn’t shown proficiency as an outside shooter, but that could be his next step. The concern: Howard falls in love with shooting the way he did with post-ups, and he takes too many inefficient shots.

But there’s still something encouraging about someone working so hard to improve this far into his career.

Of course, on-court improvement won’t be enough for Howard. He has quietly produced or near star level in Atlanta and Charlotte. The problems came in the locker room. Howard’s attitude must improve, too.

Maybe it’ll all come together for him, and he’ll thrive through the rest of his 30s. He’s saying all the right things.

But we’ve also been here before.

Carmelo Anthony writes thank-you note to Oklahoma City: ‘I wanted nothing more than to make it work here’

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After last season, Carmelo Anthony summed up his time with the Thunder: “It wasn’t no strategy to me being here.” He waived his no-trade clause to facilitate a trade to and buyout from the Hawks, allowing him to join the Rockets – his preferred destination ever since his time with the Knicks was ending.

But he’s leaving Oklahoma City emphasizing the positive.

Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:

This is a nice letter, especially for someone who was there only one year. Thunder fans are extremely supportive, and I believe Anthony truly wanted it to work in Oklahoma City. He changed his game plenty to complement Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

It just wasn’t enough.

Of course, there’s more to the story. That’s self-evident in Anthony choosing to leave the Thunder rather than trying to solve their problems next season in a less-rushed situation.

But this isn’t an analysis of Anthony’s Oklahoma City tenure. It’s a thank-you note that seems pretty genuine and heartfelt – right until it’s signed “STAYME7o,” which is par for the course for Anthony.