Heat, Cavaliers enter Twilight Zone; Miami emerges with 24th straight win. Barely.

55 Comments

Strangest. Game. Ever… or at least this season. Rod Serling should have done the play-by-play.

In the end, Miami escaped Cleveland with a 98-95 win that extends their winning streak to 24 games. That’s what the history books will show. But like life, this game was not about the results, it was about the journey.

And the journey was wild.

To start, the opening tip was delayed for nearly 45 minutes because the scoreboard was leaking coolant onto the court and had to be lowered to be fixed.

Then once the game did start the undermanned Cavaliers — no Kyrie Irving, no Dion Waiters, no Anderson Varejao — the Cavaliers not only hung in but also went on a 23-2 run to close out the half and lead by 21. The Cavaliers played harder and were more physical than a Heat team that was cold and seemingly disinterested. Tristan Thomas led the way 12 points and 5 rebounds in the first half (he finished with 18-8)

That Cleveland lead climbed all the way to 27 early in the third quarter, 67-40.

Then the Heat came back with a vengeance — a 43-12 run fueled by pressure defense threes (the Heat opened the second half hitting 8-14 threesm Mario Chalmers hit 4-of-5 from three on his way to 17 points for the game). Miami had come out trapping on defense and pressuring the ball, and over the course of the half the Cavaliers were starting their offense farther and farther away from the rim. Miami was playing like the team that won 23 in a row and it overwhelmed the Cavs.

Then a Cavs fan wearing “LeBron 2014 Come Back” T-Shirt rushes the court and is taken off by security. (If you’re trying to convince LeBron to return, being the crazy guy running on the court mid-game is not helping your cause. Just sayin’.)

After that Miami looks like they are going to run away with it and cruise to a win. The Heat lead gets up to 8… but then the Cavaliers answer with a 7-0 run of their own.

It was a one-point game with :44 seconds left. Both teams had a chance to win it (or ice the win) but both teams missed jump shots — Dwywane Wade with a 20-foot step back miss off a Chris Bosh pick, then a Wayne Ellington isolation missed three over Ray Allen (Ellington led the Cavs with 20 points). As the game got tight both teams played too much hero ball and only Alonzo Gee — who had some great baseline drives and dunks around LeBron on his way to 10 points — seemed to have any success that way.

In the end, LeBron hit a couple free throws to add to his triple-double — 25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. As it has been on this streak, he is the guy at the heart of it all.

“We had to dig deep for this one,” LeBron said in a televised post-game interview. “We already know, like I said this morning, every team is going to give us a good shot no matter their record, no matter who is on the floor, we are going to get their best. And we should enjoy that, we should embrace it because it picks up our level of intensity as well.”

There would have been something fitting about the Heat winning streak dying in Cleveland, something cathartic for Cavaliers fans. The reason it’s still alive is the maturity and additions to LeBron James’ games that he has added since leaving the Cavs. Which is a tough pill to swallow in Cleveland, despite playing the kind of game they can be proud of.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

1 Comment

Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

Getty Images
1 Comment

Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

AP Photo/Kathy Willens
1 Comment

Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.