Heat knock Thunder out of rhythm, hang on for close win

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If this is going to be the NBA finals again, I am all good with that. In fact, can we start it tomorrow?

The Thunder and Heat gave us all the Christmas Day gift of what felt as close to playoff game as you are going to get in December— it was physical, intense, even Kevin Durant and LeBron James were jawing at each other by the end of this one.

And just like the last three times the Heat and Thunder played in Miami it was the Heat that came away with the win, 103-97.

This win means nothing if these teams meet again in June — there are no statement games in December. But the game did remind us of a few things.

Miami makes things a struggle for the Thunder like seemingly no other team in the NBA can do. If you watched games from Oklahoma City’s recent 12-game winning streak you would see fantastic ball movement, great spacing and guys getting good looks in the flow of the offense. But the Heat take the Thunder out of that flow — Oklahoma City becomes a team that likes too much isolation and doesn’t move off the ball.

The result is when you need a three to tie the game with 14 seconds left you end up with Durant taking a contested step-back three with LeBron in his face. (As for Russell Westbrook being fouled on that next three… I don’t know. The review was inconclusive. But OKC wouldn’t have needed a three if they had defended on what became a Chris Bosh dunk the play before. One foul never loses you a game by itself.)

Miami raced off to a 13-2 start with LeBron James throwing down dunks to get off to a fast start on his way to a huge 29-point, 8 rebound, 9 assist game. He made a statement that if you are going to have a conversation about the MVP and have Carmelo Anthony and Durant in it go ahead, but you better have LeBron in that mix as well.

The Thunder closed that gap with the three by the end of the first quarter and eventually tied it up 39-39. We had a game the rest of the way.

For Miami we had a Mario Chalmers sighting — he had 20 points and shot 4-of-8 from three. Dwyane Wade had 21 points, Chris Bosh 16.

For the Thunder, it was 33 for Durant in the kind of quality game an MVP has on the big stage. But after that things dropped off a little — Westbrook had 21 points but needed 19 shots to get them, Kevin Martin had 15 but hit just 4-of-10 shots.

The real question I have for Scottie Brooks — why so much Kendrick Perkins, particularly late in the game. Perkins has a role on your team against the Lakers or Grizzlies, but against the Heat he seems lost without a position and was exposed by the Heat.

And with all that, it was a six point final score in a game the Thunder had a shot in. They need to play at their peak to beat the Heat and we didn’t see that on Christmas just like we didn’t last June. Like the protagonist in an action movie, the Heat are going to have to play at a new level to beat the Heat in a series. Oklahoma City may have that in them but their margin for error is small. And we saw too many little mistakes.

But it’s close.

It could be different if they meet in the finals. And if that happens, I’m good with it.

Report: Clippers trading Wesley Johnson to Pelicans for Alexis Ajinca

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The Chris PaulBlake GriffinDeAndre Jordan era already ended in L.A.

Now, the Clippers are losing the very last player from their 2016-17 team (just two years ago!) – Wesley Johnson, who’s being shipped to the Pelicans for Alexis Ajinca.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Johnson ($6,134,520) has a slightly higher salary than Ajinca ($5,285,394) with both players in the final year of their contracts. As long the Clippers have to waive a player, they’d rather drop the cheaper one.

The Clippers actually had to shed two players before the regular-season roster deadline. They’re also releasing Jawun Evans, the No. 39 pick last year. The point guard just didn’t acclimate to the NBA quickly enough to beat out Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Wallace. Though waiving Evans was probably the right move now, I wouldn’t write him off entirely.

Ajinca, on the other hand, has no place in a shrinking NBA. The 7-foot-2 30-year-old can’t stay healthy and hasn’t been productive when on the court.

Johnson fell out of favor with Clippers coach Doc Rivers, but the Pelicans desperate for a small forward. Though Johnson wouldn’t be an exciting addition for most teams, he’s worth the low cost – the $849,126 difference between his and Ajinca’s salaries – to New Orleans, where he might actually be a significant addition.

PBT Podcast: MVP, Rookie of Year, other awards plus NBA playoffs, Finals predictions

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Will James Harden repeat as MVP or will someone else — LeBron James, Anthony Davis — grab the award away from him?

Luca Doncic and Deandre Ayton seem to be the favorites for Rookie of the Year, but could Trae Young or Jaren Jackson Jr. push their way into the conversation?

Who will win Coach of the Year? Is Jamal Murray a guy to watch for Most Improved Player?

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports discuss all the major awards plus get into playoff predictions in this latest PBT Podcast. Can Charlotte sneak into the final playoff slot in the East or is Detroit going to take that? Are the Spurs going to miss the playoffs in the West for the first time in 22 years? And are the Warriors a lock to win it all? (Hint: They are not.)

We want your questions for the podcast, and your comments, email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com. As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Report: Suns signing Jamal Crawford

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The Suns are desperate for a point guard.

How desperate?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I wouldn’t assume Phoenix plans to play Crawford at point guard. Perhaps, he’ll be an off guard. But the possibility is scary – whether the fear comes from playing Crawford out of position or the possibility he’d actually be the Suns’ top point guard.

It’s questionable whether the 38-year-old can help in either backcourt spot. He doesn’t attack the rim like he used to, and his defense has become even more porous.

Though he declined a $4,544,400 player option with the Timberwolves, there’s a reason he remained a free agent so long. He’ll likely settle for the minimum with Phoenix, one of the NBA’s bottom teams.

The Suns now have 14 players with guaranteed salaries on standard contracts, three with small or no guarantees (Richaun Holmes, Isaiah Canaan and Shaquille Harrison) plus Crawford. The regular-season standard-contract roster limit is 15. So, it’ll be interesting to see whom Phoenix drops in the next day. The Suns reportedly applied for a disabled-player exception for Darrell Arthur.

The Suns might try to spin this as adding veteran leadership. But they already have Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Tyson Chandler. How many veteran leaders do they need?

They need a starting-caliber point guard. Crawford isn’t it. At best, they realize that and have other plans for him.

Charles Barkley says he hasn’t worn underwear in a decade

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Charles Barkley can’t control everything, like whether the Magic hire him as general manager.

But he can control his underpants, as he explained on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.