Pacers/Heat Game 7 preview: Win or go home

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The Miami Heat are at home, they have the swagger that comes with having hung a banner, they are battle tested, and they have the best player in the world on their team. He’s the trump card.

The Indiana Pacers are confident, they have the blueprint on how to win against the Heat, they are big and able to pound Miami inside, and they have a defense that can keep them in any game.

Miami is playing for its legacy. Indiana has a confidence that comes from having beaten Miami in Miami once this series — and if Roy Hibbert hadn’t been watching the final moments of Game 1 from the bench, they might have ended this series already.

Miami vs. Indiana Game 7 — winner goes on to the NBA Finals, loser goes fishing. One game, win or go home.

The keys to this big game remain what they have all series.

Indiana’s offensive rebounding is the key barometer for them — when Hibbert and David West are getting offensive rebounds and second-chance points the Pacers’ offense can score with the Heat. In their wins Indiana has grabbed the board on close to 40 percent of its missed shots, they need to do that again. Indiana will also try to use that size by getting the ball inside, getting their big men looks and ideally drawing fouls and getting a lot of free throws. Hibbert has averaged 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds a game this series to lead them. Paul George has been brilliant and he is the perimeter player that stirs the drink.

LeBron James has been fantastic this series as well — he’s averaged 28.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game (and usually one flop). He’d average more assists but his help on offense has been inconsistent at best — Dwyane Wade has looked grounded because of the bone bruise on his knee, while Chris Bosh has been overmatched much of the series against the larger Pacers front line. Someone — Wade, Bosh, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem — has to step up, knock down shots and be a second scorer with LeBron for Miami to win. Indiana has chased Miami off the three-point line all series, the Heat need those threes that fueled their powerful offense all season. And they have to rebound — like a pack, as they did all season. Miami cannot let Indiana dominate the glass.

The Heat’s advantages are they are at home, where those role players they need tend to be more comfortable and play better. They also get Chris Andersen back following a one-game suspension for foolishly shoving and challenging Tyler Hansbrough — Miami missed the Birdman in Game 6.

Defense will be the key — Miami has averaged 106.9 points per 100 possessions this series, which is 10 points better than the Pacers allowed during the regular season; Indiana is right with them averaging 106.5 points per 100, which is 5 points better than they scored during the season and 6 better than the Heat allowed. The Heat try to swarm you with athleticism (although they stop trapping on pick-and-rolls a couple games ago) and the Pacers use their length on the perimeter and size in the paint to challenge everything.

One team’s defense will likely step up tonight and slow the other team down — do that and they are playing the Spurs Thursday night.

Also, Game 7s have ways of making heroes out of unexpected players. Is this the game Norris Cole just goes off for Miami, driving and knocking down threes? Does Lance Stephenson seem immune to the pressure and have a huge game for the Pacers with an athleticism the Heat cannot slow?

Miami is and should be the favorites at home, but the Pacers enter with a genuine belief they can win this thing.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is right — these are the kind of games we talk about 20 years from now. The kind of games that define legacies.

Because it’s simple and clear — one game for everything. Winner takes it all.

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri