Bulls put an end to Heat’s 27-game winning streak

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The Heat weren’t expecting to see their 27-game winning streak snapped in Chicago on Wednesday, due to the Bulls being shorthanded and playing without Joakim Noah, Rip Hamilton, and Marco Belinelli due to injury.

But that’s the thing about winning streaks, and it’s also the reason that the NBA record of 33 straight wins set by the Lakers way back in the 1971-72 season still stands — they come to an end when you least expect it.

The Bulls beat the Heat 101-97, which gave Miami its first loss since February 1, and snapped the second-longest winning streak in NBA history in the process.

The streak wasn’t going to go on forever. It just seemed like the version of the Bulls that took the floor on Wednesday wouldn’t have the necessary firepower to stop it.

Chicago jumped out to a 13-2 lead to start the game, which had Miami playing catch-up from essentially the opening tip. That wasn’t necessarily that big of an issue for this Heat team, considering the multiple times they’ve come back from double-digit deficits during this streak to come back and win games, and win them convincingly.

Against the Bulls, however, it posed a problem.

When the Heat took the lead (as expected) late in the third quarter, behind an increased defensive intensity that held the Bulls to just 14 points in the period on 31.6 percent shooting while forcing six turnovers, Chicago didn’t fold like so many other opponents of Miami’s have in the past.

The Bulls responded and battled, and seemed to want it more than Miami as the game headed down the stretch.

The key run from Chicago came with just over seven and a half minutes to play in the fourth, with the Bulls clinging to a two-point lead. Two three-pointers from Luol Deng, with a runner in the lane from Kirk Hinrich in between, pushed the Bulls lead to eight with just over six minutes to play. That sequence was followed by an and-1 from Dwyane Wade, but Jimmy Butler answered with another three for Chicago to send the advantage back to eight with under five and a half remaining.

The best way to describe the rest of the game from that point was the Bulls finding a way, possession after possession, to withstand the Heat’s best shot.

LeBron James was called for a flagrant foul for lowering a shoulder into the chest of Carlos Boozer who was setting a screen on the perimeter with under four minutes to play — a questionable call in terms of it being ruled a flagrant, but a clear sign that James was experiencing frustration nonetheless.

Miami couldn’t put together a late run thanks to the defensive identity of the Bulls that was on display in the flesh in the final few minutes, and Nate Robinson, somewhat fittingly, got into the lane for a layup with 30 seconds left that pushed the Bulls lead to nine and put the game officially out of reach.

James finished with a stellar statistical line of 32 points on 11-17 shooting, to go along with seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, and four blocked shots. Wade had 18 points and Chris Bosh finished with 21, but no other player from Miami was able to crack double figures.

Deng played like the All-Star he’s been for the past two seasons in this one, especially in the fourth quarter, where he finished with 12 of his team-high 28 points. Boozer was more than solid with 21 points and 17 rebounds, and Hinrich’s feisty and fearless effort defending James at times helped set the tone from an energy standpoint for his undermanned Bulls team.

The streak had to end at some point, and it’s worth noting that having it happen now, with 11 games left in the regular season, is probably just fine with the Heat.

Remember, the Spurs entered the playoffs a season ago riding a 10-game winning streak, and ran it to 20 through the first three rounds of the postseason. But once it finally ended, they lost four straight and were eliminated from title contention.

Gregg Popovich wouldn’t want to go through that again, and Bosh has already said that winning another championship would be much more meaningful than breaking the all-time record for consecutive wins could ever be.

Those are the silver linings the Heat will find as they reflect on the streak coming to an end in Chicago. It was an impressive run that will be remembered, but Miami’s hopes are that it will be a mere footnote to a season that ends in nothing short of a second straight NBA title.

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

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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

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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?

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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

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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.