What does it take to beat Miami? Three keys… then pray a lot

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As we watch the Heat during this streak of 27 straight wins, we keep thinking, “Sure the Heat are good, but somebody can beat them one night and end this run.” It’s almost happened a couple times and the Heat have three games this week — at Chicago, against New Orleans (who just ended Denver’s streak) and at San Antonio — that could well be the end.

But does anybody think another team can pull that all together for four out of seven games in a playoff series?

This run has the Heat focused and thinking about their legacy, which makes them tougher come the playoffs. But they can be beat on any given night, and after reading what other players are saying about the Heat at NBA.com three areas leap out:

Match or beat Miami’s intensity. Maybe the most impressive thing about Miami’s streak is that they bring it every night. Rockets coach Kevin McHale talked about how his legendary 1980s Celtics teams would win double digits then just get bored one night and lose to a non-playoff team — Miami has had a couple close calls in those situations but were able to fight back (the 27-point comeback against the Cavaliers being the most obvious). They find enough energy to get the win every night, even with Dwyane Wade out the last two games.

This is the easiest of the three — everybody is up to face the Heat now. But energy and playing with a belief that the Heat can be beat is the start.

Don’t turn the ball over. According to Tom Haberstoh at ESPN, during this 27-game winning streak 18 percent of opponent possessions have ended in a turnover. That would be nearly one in five possessions and the highest percentage in the league.

We know what happens when you turn the ball over against the Heat, it’s LeBron alley-oop dunks in transition over poor Goran Dragic. Or Jason Terry. Or… you get the idea. You have to take away the Heat’s easy buckets and that starts by taking care of the ball.

Which is easier said than done — Miami’s entire defense is predicated on athleticism, pressure, taking away your strengths and forcing turnovers or bad shots. Because of their personnel the Heat can switch a lot of pick-and-rolls or other rubs trying to free a guy up — normally teams want to get their point guard switched on to a forward, but when it is LeBron or Shane Battier it isn’t an advantage. The way to defuse that pressure is with ball movement and player movement off the ball — which is why some basketball people think the Spurs are the team with the best shot against Miami.

But to beat the Heat you have to take care of the ball and make them work for their buckets.

Knock down your threes. As you know from watching the NCAA Tournament lately, the three ball can be the great equalizer — for one game you can beat a team knocking down threes. During this win streak Miami is closing out on shooters at the arc, not letting those easy buckets fall — in their last 20 games teams are shooting just 32.7 percent from three against the Heat.

In the same way a team will need to stop the Heat from getting easy buckets, they will need easy buckets of their own. That means lots of threes.

Miami is going to have to help you out. Miami creates so many problems for a defense. LeBron and Dwyane Wade cam pretty much get to the basket and force help rotations whenever they want. So you double them to take the ball out of their hands and you find they swing the ball well and have guys in Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers (among others) who space the floor and knock down threes. Their bigs — Chris Bosh in particular — can roll to the rim or just space the floor 15 feet away and make it hard to help off them. Defenses have to pick their poison against the Heat.

That’s why the “Miami struggles to rebound” argument holds little water — if they are making their shots, who cares? Plus, they have guys in Wade and LeBron who are very good rebounders for their positions.

Teams need help against Miami — they need guys to just miss shots, throw a couple errant passes, just have an off night. Look at the end of Denver’s streak Monday — not to take anything away from a great New Orleans effort, but a Nuggets team that scores more points in the paint than any other squad in the NBA shot just 42 percent on those looks for a night. Denver got their shots and missed them. It happens. Teams need a little of that against Miami.

But do you think that’s going to happen four out of seven nights?

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.