PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Chicago: 45-37, five seed in the East

Miami: 66-16, one seed in the East, best record in the NBA

PLAYOFF RECORDS

Chicago: Beat the Brooklyn Nets 4-3

Miami: Swept the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0

SEASON SERIES

The teams split the four meetings with two wins apiece. The Bulls snapped the Heat’s 27-game winning streak on March 27.

KEY INJURIES

The Bulls are likely to be without Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng at least to start the series, just as they were for their Game 7 win in Brooklyn over the Nets. There is no change to the status of Derrick Rose, who is expected to continue to be out for the rest of the playoffs.

Dwyane Wade missed Game 4 against the Bucks with a sore knee, but will have had eight days to rest by the time Game 1 against the Bulls tips off on Monday. He’s expected back.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession) – PLAYOFFS ONLY

Chicago: Offense 102.3 (9th in the postseason), Defense 104.9 (Tied-10th in the postseason)

Miami: Offense 108.6 (4th in the postseason), Defense 91.5 (3rd in the postseason)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

Rest or rust for Miami? The Heat have been so dominant in winning 41 of their last 43 games that sadly, it’s come to worrying about whether or not an eight-day layoff between the first and second round of the playoffs should be cause for concern. It isn’t. If Miami shows any signs at all of being out of sync, it won’t last beyond the first quarter of Game 1. The Bulls would be wise to maximize that opportunity to the fullest should it actually present itself.

For the Bulls, it’s all about defense: In order for the Bulls to have a shot in this series, they’ll need to contain LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, while still managing to get out and contest Miami’s three-point shooters. (Oh, is that all?) It starts with scoring enough so that Miami is taking the ball out of the net instead of off the glass, where the Heat can be as dangerous as any team in the league if they’re able to get out in transition. Even containing Miami’s scoring on the secondary break can be a problem for defenses to stop, so finding that balance between crashing for offensive rebounds and getting back to limit fast break opportunities will be critical for the Bulls, who will have the best chance to slow the Heat while defending them in traditional halfcourt sets.

Miami was second in the league during the regular season in three-point shooting percentage (trailing only the Golden State Warriors), and was sixth in the league in attempting more than 22 shots per game from beyond the arc. A lot of that comes from drive-and-kick actions from James and Wade, so playing team defense on the slashers with the interior players while staying at home on the shooters (or at least making sure to close out on them with purpose) is going to be another area of concentration defensively for the Bulls.

For the Heat, it’s all about intensity: The Bulls play extremely hard, all night,  every night, no matter who is or is not in their lineup. The intensity with which Chicago approaches every single possession is the reason that despite the multitude of injuries the team has dealt with this season, it was still able to win a Game 7 on the road to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

The injuries to Deng and Hinrich that will likely keep them out for the first game or two of this series will hurt the Bulls overall, but it won’t hurt what they do offensively. Much like the Spurs, the Bulls are a system team that doesn’t rely too heavily on one or two players to carry the bulk of the scoring load on a nightly basis. If Nate Robinson, for example, isn’t forcing the issue and is converting at a relatively acceptable percentage, then Tom Thibodeau will ride him as long as possible. If not, he has no problem going elsewhere to get the desired results.

Miami is far and away the better team in this series. The only thing that can even the playing field for Chicago is if the Heat decide to cruise for extended stretches, and let the Bulls gain confidence while they’re still expending maximum energy.

OUTLOOK

The injuries to Deng and Hinrich are a much bigger deal in this series than they turned out to be for the Bulls against the Nets. Hinrich is excellent defensively, and Deng can legitimately impact the game on both ends of the floor. Without those two, there is much less room for error for the Bulls, especially opening on the road against the defending champs.

Expect Miami to impose its will early in this series to crush any hope the Bulls might have of stealing a game or two to try to make it interesting. Chicago will continue to play hard, but the team isn’t likely to have enough to beat the Heat more than once, and even that seems like a bit of a stretch.

PREDICTION

Heat to sweep in four games.

Kevin Knox won over Knicks and now expects to win over their fans

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — Kevin Knox took a call from someone who knew exactly what he experienced on draft night.

New Yorkers didn’t welcome Kristaps Porzingis with open arms, either.

“He asked me how the fans reacted and I told him I got the same amount of boos as he got,” Knox said Friday. “He just laughed and he said it’s all motivation and fuel to the fire, and he said just work and he said sooner or later they’ll be cheering for you.”

That’s what happened with Porzingis, who quickly won over those who loudly booed his selection in 2015 with his talent, competitiveness and work ethic.

The Knicks see the same traits in Knox, convincing them that the Kentucky freshman was not only the player to take with the No. 9 pick but that he’s ready to start and match up with the NBA’s best small forwards next season.

That’s why they decided a day before the draft they were taking Knox if he was available and didn’t waver from that even when Michael Porter Jr. was still on the board – disappointing some at Barclays Center who chanted for Porter and then booed Knox.

“I love the fact that he wanted to be at Kentucky, that he wanted to be a Knick,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “Says a lot about that kid that he wants challenges and so I think he’s going to fit exactly the way we want to build our culture.”

Beyond the 15.6 points he averaged last season while sharing SEC Freshman of the Year honors with Collin Sexton – drafted one pick earlier by Cleveland – Knox impressed the Knicks with his confidence. He chose to play at Kentucky out of Tampa Catholic in Florida and compete for playing time with the other talented players in Lexington, then agreed to play 3-on-3 in workouts when many top prospects prefer to do them individually.

And the annual outsized expectations faced by John Calipari’s teams should help Knox prepare for the pressure of New York, perhaps giving him a quicker adjustment period than Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks’ lottery pick last season, had after coming to the U.S. from France.

“That actually is going to be up to Kevin, what the learning curve is and how long the adjustment takes,” team president Steve Mills said. “But what I will say is that while all college basketball programs prepare guys to play in the NBA, the sort of pressure and the limelight and the spotlight you’re under when you make a decision to play at Kentucky I think does prepare you in a different way to play in a place like New York. So I think some of the things that are tougher for rookies to make adjustments to are some things that he’s already been through.”

The adjustment is likely much longer for 7-footer Mitchell Robinson, who the Knicks took with the No. 36 pick. A high school All-American in 2016-17, he enrolled at Western Kentucky but never played, instead leaving school and opting to train for the draft. He said he worked out daily, but hasn’t played competitively in a year so it’s unknown how soon he could contribute.

But Fizdale sounds ready to put Knox on the court right away on a team that used Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee as undersized small forwards last season.

“They’re both 6-5 and he’s got to guard LeBron and (Kevin) Durant and those are the 3s in our league,” Fizdale said. “So I feel like it’s a very good opportunity to have a chance to start.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”