Game 7 between the Heat and the Spurs: Seven things to watch

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MIAMI — The Heat and the Spurs have engaged in an epic Finals battle which will crown one of them as champions by the time Thursday night is through.

In a series where neither team has been able to string together two consecutive victories, it’s even more impossible than usual to predict how one game that will decide the title will ultimately shake out. But we can look for some signs, so here, in no particular order, are seven of them to watch.

1. Aggressive LeBron: When LeBron James is bringing up the ball, and attacking the paint either on straight dribble drives or from the post, the Heat are extremely difficult to stop. The fourth quarter of Game 6, as well as stretches of Game 4 are recent reminders of just how dominant the game’s best player can be when he exerts himself.

The trouble for the Heat is, from a pure energy standpoint, he can’t do it for 48 minutes. Dwyane Wade explained as much before practicing on Wednesday.

“I mean, [LeBron] is in unbelievable shape,” Wade said. “Unbelievable. “But he can’t do it four quarters that way. That’s why he has a team. A lot of people always say, why he can’t play like that every day? It takes so much out of you, so much energy to be able to do that. If he does, then he’s not playing any defense on the other end. He’s not making incredible blocks, [grabbing] incredible rebounds. It takes a lot of energy to be able to do that every time.”

2. Dwyane Wade’s effectiveness: The lineup data in this series says that when LeBron and Wade are on the floor together, it’s not a good look for the Heat. With James and without Wade, however, it’s a completely different story. How effective Wade can be, and whether or not Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has the guts to go away from him for extended stretches if he’s not may have a lot to do with how things play out for Miami. Don’t expect Spoelstra to change too much, however, no matter Wade’s performance.

“I don’t really give a whole lot to those numbers,” Spoelstra said. “We’re going as far as they take us, along with the other guys. You can’t win this series or the last game with a statistic. You have to compete and win those battles on the court.”

3. The Heat’s “other guys”: Speaking of the others, we know Miami is going to need someone outside of the Big Three to step up and contribute. History says LeBron wins when that happens, and remember, it was Ray Allen who made the season-saving shot in Game 6. Guys like Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller will be huge to the Heat’s chances; look at last year’s Finals closeout game, where Miller was 7-of-8 from three-point distance. In a one-game-for-the-title situation, a single, unexpected, outlier performance can be the difference.

4. Health concerns, specifically with Tony Parker: We know how banged up Wade has been, and he missed the start of the second half of Game 6 because he needed to remain in the locker room getting treatment on that ailing knee. But the health of Parker might be an even bigger issue for the Spurs.

Parker was clearly struggling in Game 6 — he was 6-of-23 from the field for the game, but he did make two ridiculously huge plays with about a minute to play that had his team on the brink of the title. The Spurs can’t afford to be without Parker’s services for the majority of Game 7, especially if their role players are nonexistent.

5. A role player for the Spurs needs to materialize: Over the course of the series, we’ve seen gigantic performances from San Antonio’s system players who produced when called upon. Danny Green was in the MVP conversation at one point, after setting the record for three-pointers made in the Finals through the first five games.

The Heat shut Green down in Game 6, and Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal were similarly unable to impact the game in any meaningful way. Tim Duncan was magnificent, but was only able to dominate for a half. Just like the Heat, San Antonio will need a total team effort, or at the very least, a standout performance to help its stars secure a title.

6. The level of play: The last time we saw a Game 7 to decide the NBA title back in 2010, the Lakers and Celtics engaged in more of a wrestling match than a basketball game for the majority of the night. Both teams competed incredibly hard, and were intent on making every possession a physical battle. That made the shooting percentages plummet (the winning team shot just 32.6 percent), and aside from the insane level of competitiveness, the game was anything but aesthetically pleasing.

We’ve been fortunate enough to see some of the highest levels of play in Finals history in this series, in terms of offensive execution and defensive cohesiveness between these two teams. If Game 7 comes down to a slugfest, the Spurs would have the advantage.

7. The pressure of Game 7: The Heat won the title just last season, and the Spurs core of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili have won multiple championships over the years. The veteran experience should serve both teams well in a deciding game, but should there be any nervousness or tentative play, it could be a factor in one team seeing the opportunity to pounce.

But James and Duncan are both well aware of what’s at stake.

“I understand the moment for me,” James said. “I’ve been pretty relaxed, though. I’ve been pretty relaxed throughout the playoffs. I’m going to be antsy, I’m going to be excited. I’m going to have some butterflies. I’ll be nervous. Everything. That’s how I should be. The moment is going to be grand, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

“Our core of guys have been through a lot together,” Duncan said. “We have some young talent here, but they’re going to feed off of what we do. And Tony, Manu and I have been in this position before. We’re excited about the opportunity.

“We just want to see what happens and be able to leave everything out there. We feel that obviously we like our chances, and to be in this situation, a Game 7, we’re just going to leave it all out there and see what happens.”

Boban? Crowder? Holmgren? Exploring player votes for All-Star starters

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Four NBA players — not one as a joke, but four… as a joke — voted for injured Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren to start the NBA All-Star Game.

The NBA All-Star Game starters were announced Thursday, chosen from a weighted vote of fans (50%), media (25%) and current players (25%).

While most NBA players may take their All-Star Game starter votes seriously, some do not — they vote for friends, college teammates, guys with the same agent, or just whoever they feel like.

Which is comedy gold once we comb through the public vote (Note: names are not attached to who cast a vote, but we do see who got votes). This season, that list of players getting at least one vote to be an All-Star starter include:

Bol Bol (Orlando Magic, he got six votes)
Willy Hernangomez (New Orleans Pelicans, he got five votes)
Juancho Hernangomez (Toronto Raptors, he got three votes)
Omer Yurtseven (Miami Heat, he got three votes)
Georges Niang (Philadelphia 76ers, he got five votes)
Ochai Agbaji (Utah Jazz, he got four votes)
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (Oklahoma City Thunder, he got three votes)
Bismack Biyombo (Phoenix Suns, he got three votes)
Jae Crowder (Phoenix Suns, he got two votes)
Udonis Haslem (Miami Heat, he got two votes)
Blake Griffin (Boston Celtics)
Boban Marjanovic (Houston Rockets)
Kemba Walker (Dallas Mavericks)
Kendrick Nunn (Los Angeles Lakers)
Ish Smith (Denver Nuggets)
Torrey Craig (Phoenix Suns)
Luka Garza (Minnesota Timberwolves)
Chimezie Metu (Sacramento Kings)
Furkan Korkmaz (Philadelphia 76ers)
R.J. Hampton (Orlando Magic)
Johnny Davis (Washington Wizards)
Cedi Osman (Cleveland Cavaliers)
MarJon Beauchamp (Milwaukee Bucks)
Paul Reed (Philadelphia 76ers)

That is just a fraction of the entire list.

Three things to Know: Knicks win another in clutch, beat Celtics in OT

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Knicks win another in clutch, beat Celtics in OT behind 37 from Randle

It will surprise Knicks fans, but New York has been a good clutch team in the tightest of games this season: In games within three points in the final three minutes, they are 11-9 with a +7.8 net rating.

The Knicks didn’t look like a clutch team — but did what Knicks fans expected — when they blew a 13-point lead by scoring just four points over the final 5:20 of the fourth quarter. Combine that with Jayson Tatum scoring 11 in the frame, and the Celtics came back to tie the game and force OT.

However, in the OT, the Knicks had RJ Barrett knocking down big shots.

And, with the game on the line, they had Jalen Brunson with the block.

With that, the Knicks went into Boston and pulled out the 120-117 OT win over the East-leading Celtics. Julius Randle had 27 points and nine rebounds (and hit the free throws that put the Knicks up for good in OT), Brunson scored 29, and Barrett added 19.

There are promising signs for Knicks fans:

Brunson and Randle just out-dueled Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Knicks have now racked up back-to-back wins against the Cavaliers and Celtics.

New York will need more wins like this because they will be battling the Heat, and maybe the Pacers, for that No. 6 seed and avoiding the play-in the rest of the season. But don’t sleep on a couple of quality wins.

2) Luka Doncic leaves game with ankle sprain; Mavericks win anyway

Name the team that could least afford to lose its superstar.

The Mavericks — with their heliocentric offense built around Luka Doncic — have to be at the top of the list.

Dallas could be without Doncic for a few games after he sprained his ankle just minutes into Thursday night’s contest against the Suns. Doncic drove on Cameron Johnson but when he couldn’t get to the rim he stopped, spun, tried to step back, stepped on the foot of Mikal Bridges and rolled his left ankle.

Doncic left the game and he did not return. Dallas can’t afford to be without Doncic for long, it gets outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when he sits. He is an All-Star starter and in the MVP mix. He averages 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game.

Just to prove that last paragraph wrong, the Jazz went out and beat the Suns 99-95 without Doncic behind a season-high 36 points from Spencer Dinwiddie, plus Dorian Finney-Smith chipped in 18 points and 12 rebounds.

3) LeBron, Antetokounmpo captains as All-Star starters named

Last season, Team LeBron won the All-Star Game partly because LeBron James had Giannis Antetokounmpo on his team.

Not this year. It will be Team LeBron vs. Team Giannis, they received the most fan votes in their conferences and will be the captains for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. This is the sixth time LeBron is a captain, and his teams are 5-0.

In a new twist, James and Antetokounmpo will choose their teams right on the court before the game — true playground style. The captains will draft from a pool of starters announced Thursday — selected by a vote of fans, media, and current players — and then the backups from a list of reserves selected by the coaches (which will be announced next week).

Here are this year’s starters (two backcourt, three frontcourt players from each conference):

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry
Luka Doncic
LeBron James
Nikola Jokic
Zion Williamson

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving
Donovan Mitchell
Kevin Durant
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Jayson Tatum

Joel Embiid was the odd man out of a tight race for the final frontcourt spot in the East (because the fans voted him fourth, the media and players each had him third, but the fans count for 50% of the weighted vote). This will be the first start for Williamson (if he’s healthy enough to play) and Mitchell.

Luka Doncic leaves game with sprained ankle, X-rays negative

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Mavericks fans everywhere were holding their breath.

Just more than three minutes into a showdown with the Suns Thursday, Luka Doncic drove on Cameron Johnson but didn’t get around him, so Doncic stopped, spun, tried to step back, and stepped on the foot of Mikal Bridges‘ and rolled his left ankle.

After a Torey Craig 3-pointer, Doncic left the game and hobbled back to the Mavericks locker room to be checked out. While X-rays were negative Doncic is out for the remainder of the game.

It will be tomorrow before the Mavericks can get a feel for how long Doncic might be out. They can’t afford for him to be out long, Dallas has been outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when Doncic is off the court. He has been playing through ankle soreness for a few weeks but has missed only a couple of games.

Doncic, who was just voted an All-Star starter, is in the MVP mix this season averaging 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. The Mavericks are 8.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo captains as All-Star starters named

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LeBron James is just 157 points shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record, which he should break early next month. But before breaking that iconic record, he tied Abdul-Jabbar for another NBA milestone.

LeBron was the leading fan vote-getter and is an NBA All-Star Game for the 19th time, tying Abdul-Jabbar for the most All-Star appearances in league history.

James and Giannis Antetokounmpo received the most fan votes in their conferences and will be the captains of the teams for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. This is Antetokounmpo’s third time as captain, it is LeBron’s sixth — and his teams are 5-0 in his previous captaincies.

In a new twist, James and Antetokounmpo will pick their teams playground style right on the court before the game. They will choose from a pool of starters announced Thursday — selected by a vote of fans, media, and current players — and then the backups from a list of reserves selected by the coaches (which will be announced next week). Here are this year’s starters (two backcourt, three frontcourt players from each conference):

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry
Luka Doncic
LeBron James
Nikola Jokic
Zion Williamson

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving
Donovan Mitchell
Kevin Durant
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Jayson Tatum

This is the first start for Zion Williamson and Donovan Mitchell.

The vote also squeezed Joel Embiid out of a crowded frontcourt in the East. Here is the voting breakdown, where each player’s score is weighted based on 50 percent for the fan vote, 25 percent for player vote, and 25 percent for the media vote.

Eastern Conference Frontcourt

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *#Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)      1      1      2      1.25
2. *Kevin Durant (Brooklyn)      2      2      4      2.5
3. *Jayson Tatum (Boston)      3      4      1      2.75
4. Joel Embiid (Philadephia)      4      3      3      3.75
5. Jimmy Butler (Miami)      5      7      5      5.5
6. Pascal Siakam (Toronto)      6     6      5      5.75
7. Paolo Banchero (Orlando)      8      8      5      7.25
8. Bam Adebayo (Miami)      11      5      5      8.0
9. Julius Randle (New York)      9      10      5      8.25
10. Kyle Kuzma (Washington)      7      16      5      9.25

 

Eastern Conference Guards

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *Kyrie Irving (Boston)      1      1      4      1.75
2. *Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland)      2      2      1      1.75
3. Jaylen Brown (Boston)      3      3      2      2.75
4. James Harden (Philadelphia)      4     5      5      4.5
5. Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana)      8      6      3      6.25
6. DeMar DeRozan (Chicago)      6      4      10      6.5
7. Trae Young (Atlanta)      12      5      6      7.0
8. LaMelo Ball (Charlotte)      7      9      10     8.25
9. Darius Garland (Cleveland)      10      7      6      8.25
10. Jalen Brunson (Milwaukee)      12      8      9      10.25

 *–Voted to start
#–Team captain

Western Conference Frontcourt

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *# LeBron James (Los Angeles)      1      2      2      1.5
2. *Nikola Jokic (Denver)      2      1     1      1.5
3. *Zion Williamson (New Orleans)      4      3      4      3.75
4. Anthony Davis (Los Angeles)      3      7      6      4.25
5. Lauri Markkanen (Utah)      7      4      5      5.75
6. Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento)      9      5      3      6.5
7. Paul George (L.A. Clippers)      6      6      9      6.75
8. Andrew Wiggins (Golden State)      5      19      9     9.5
9. Draymond Green (Golden State)      14      9      9      9.75
10. Kawhi Leonard (L.A. Clippers)      11      14      7      10.75

Western Conference Guards

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *Stephen Curry (Golden State)      1     2      2      1.5
2. *Luka Doncic (Dallas)      2      1      1      1.5
3. Ja Morant (Memphis)      3      3      3      3
4. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City)      4      4      4      4
5. Damian Lillard (Portland)      7      5      5      6.0
6. De'Aaron Fox (Sacramento)      8      5      5      6.5
7. Devin Booker (Phoenix)      10      7      5      8
8. Russell Westbrook (Los Angeles)      6      18      5      8.75
9. Anthony Edwards (Minnesota)      13      8      5      9.75
10. Klay Thompson (Golden State)      5      25      5      10

 *–Voted to start
#–Team captain