Too much LeBron, Wade down stretch carries Heat past Pacers, even series

129 Comments

For three quarters it looked like the Indiana Pacers were Born Ready.

But in crunch time Miami could answer with the best player on the planet — and much improved defense from Game 1.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade scored Miami’s final 15 points including during a 10-0 Heat run that started with just under five minutes left in the game, a stretch that provided the separation Miami needed to get an 87-83, grind-it-out win on the road.

That evens the series at 1-1 heading back to Game 3 in Miami Saturday night.

LeBron had an up-and down game and finished with 22 points, 12 in the fourth quarter. Wade was the key to the Heat offense in the first half then made a series of big shots, including some impressive floaters, as he had 10 in the fourth quarter and 23 for the game to lead the Heat.

But the offense wasn’t end of the court where Miami needed the biggest change after Game 1.

Miami came out with a much improved defensive effort in Game 2, particularly starting in the second quarter when they held Indiana to 6-of-21 shooting. In Game 1 Miami had little ball pressure and let the Pacers start their sets when and where they wanted, which was the first steps in a series of breakdowns. But in Game 2 Miami was pressuring the ball, forcing turnovers.

That defense was particularly evident in the fourth quarter when Miami pressured and Indiana shot just 7-of-19. As always the Heat’s offense feeds off their defense and Miami shot 58.8 percent in the final frame behind their stars.

“We had some defensive breakdowns that led to threes and we had some turnovers,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said in his post-game press conference broadcast on NBA TV.

Up until that point this game it felt like the kind of grinding, defensive, ugly playoff game that is right in the Pacers wheelhouse. It was close the whole way but it felt like Indy’s kind of game.

Lance Stephenson — nicknamed Born Ready — looked like a guy who is going to get paid as a free agent this summer just dominating for stretches, particularly in the third quarter. He was aggressive but not reckless and did a good job setting up teammates. The result was 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting plus 7 assists and 6 rebounds.

Paul George struggled. He was 1-of-11 to start the game and finished with 14 points on 16 shots. David West had 10 points on 16 shots. Part of that was good Miami defense, but some of it was just missed looks they normally hit.

Roy Hibbert had a strong game again for Indiana — 13 rebounds, 8 of them offensive, plus 12 points on 8 shots. He seems to be back on both ends, and with that the Pacers seem back in this series.

While Wade and LeBron deserve the praise, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made two key moves trusting his bench that paid off big and were key to the win.

One was putting Norris Cole on Stephenson, which hampered Stephenson on the pick-and-roll because Cole was quick enough to take away room. Stephenson was key for three quarters — he owned the third — but after the switch to have Cole on him Stephenson shot just 1-of-3 and was quiet down the stretch.

The other key was Spoelstra leaned heavily on Chris Anderson to play Roy Hibbert in big minutes. Anderson played 28 minutes total and almost the entire fourth quarter — he was the one defender who gave Hibbert trouble. Plus Anderson pulled down 13 rebounds. It was key.

Both teams can take a measure of confidence into Game 3.

Indiana is back and hanging with the champs — they lost by just four on a night where their All-Star wing Paul George was just ice cold (and David West wasn’t much better). Most nights they can force a game at this tempo, in this style, they will win. They have to feel they have a real shot here.

Miami got the split on the road and now is heading home. More importantly their defense was back and if it is back they can keep Indiana from scoring much easier than Indy can stop them. Plus, the Heat still have the best player in the series on their side.

After two games this feels like a series that is going to go on for a while.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

0 Comments

Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

0 Comments

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.

Highlights from Japan Game: Hachimura and Wiseman put on show, plus Suga and Curry

Golden State Warriors v Washington Wizards - NBA Japan Games
Jun Sato/WireImage
0 Comments

The NBA preseason is officially here — and it started in Japan. The Golden State Warriors faced the Washington Wizards in front of a sold-out crowd at the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo. In case you didn’t wake up at 6 am Eastern to watch a meaningless preseason NBA game (and if you did, we’re worried about you), here are a few highlights and notes from the night.

• The Wizards were there because they have the biggest Japanese star in the NBA, Rui Hachimura, and he was given a chance to shine. The crowd erupted when he did anything.

• The leading scorer on the night was the Warriors James Wiseman with 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus nine boards.

• Dunk of the game goes to Kyle Kuzma.

Stephen Curry was doing Stephen Curry things.

• Stephen Curry also met Suga of BTS and gave him some game-worn kicks. This will win Twitter for the day.

• Oh, by the way, the Warriors won 96-87. As for the level of basketball, it looked like the first preseason game after a flight halfway around the world. The teams combined to shoot 11-of-47 in the first quarter (23.4%) and both were under 40% for the game.

Klay Thompson is sitting out both Warriors games in Japan.

TRIVIA TIME: Can you name the other two players currently in the NBA born in Japan?

Cam Thomas (Yokosuka) and Yuta Watanabe (Yokohama), both of the Brooklyn Nets (Watanabe is on a training camp deal and is not expected to make the roster). Both were raised much of their lives and went to high school and college in the United States.

Thunder rookie Holmgren trying to focus on learning NBA during rehab

0 Comments

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren is experiencing the rehab process for the first time.

The No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft suffered a right foot injury during a pro-am game in August while defending as LeBron James drove to the basket on a fast break. He had surgery, and the Thunder declared him out for the season.

“I’ve never had a serious injury in my life, so I didn’t really know, I had nothing to base it off of and compare to,” Holmgren said Thursday. “So when it happened, I had to get it looked at and see how serious it was. I didn’t imagine anything like this.”

Holmgren, a versatile 7-footer who had great moments during summer league, is dealing with being sidelined as the Thunder start training camp this week.

“Definitely something that I really had to put my mind to and spend some time to think on,” he said. “And kind of come to some conclusions on things and really settle my mind so I could kind of stop focusing on what happened and focus in on what’s going to happen, what I’ve got to do to get where I need to be.”

Even without practicing, he has already left an impression on his teammates.

“He’s a great guy,” guard Lu Dort said. “I can already feel a connection with me and the rest of the team. He’s a pretty vocal guy, too. He talks a lot, and that’s good for the team.”

Holmgren said his only workout limitation is that he can’t put weight on the injured foot. So, that forces him to focus on other aspects of the game. Coach Mark Daigneault said Holmgren has been working hard on film study.

“It just comes down to putting my mental energy towards it, learning how to really be a professional in areas off the court,” Holmgren said. “I’ve dedicated so much time to really hustling at my craft on the court. Now, this event is making me step back and kind of rework how how I do things. And one of those ways is to become professional with watching film and speaking with coaches, trying to learn, watching what’s happening and really being engaged, in trying to get better with different avenues.”

Holmgren has spoken with Joel Embiid about his injury. Embiid, the reigning NBA scoring champion, was the No. 3 pick in 2014 before missing his first two seasons with foot issues.

Holmgren hopes he can recover as well as Embiid.

“What I’m trying to do right now is just kind of soak up all the knowledge of how things are done around here, how they’re going to be done going forward,” Holmgren said. “So when I’m ready to get get back in there, I can just kind of seamlessly plug myself in.”

Holmgren is expected to be ready for the start of next season. He said he’s trying to keep his thoughts positive.

“It all comes down to keeping a level head because there’s so many ups and downs,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is a down. But I’ve got to keep my head level and focus on getting better. And no matter what the circumstances are, that’s the goal.”

Daigneault believes Holmgren’s mindset will net positive results.

“We’d like him to be out here,” Daigneault said. “But since he’s not, we’re certainly going to make a lot of investments, and the thing that makes me the most optimistic about that is the approach that he takes.”